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August 26, 2011

Master of your domain

net.wars: Master of your domain
The IANA is not responsible for deciding what is and what is not a country, wrote Jon Postel in 1994, in the Request for Comments document (RFC 1591) explaining the structure of the domain name system. At the time, the domain name system consisted of seven "generic" top-level domains (gTLDs: .edu, .com, .net, .org, .gov, .mil, and .int), plus the set of two-letter country codes, which Postel took from the ISO-3166 list. "It is extremely unlikely that any other TLDs will be created."

As Buffy said when she aimed the rocket launcher at the Judge, "That was then."

In late June the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced its program to create new gTLDs, in the process entirely redefining the meaning of "generic", which used to mean a category type. What ICANN is really proposing are big-brand TLDs - because with an application fee of $185,000 and an annual subscription of $25,000 who else can afford one? In Internet terms, the new system will effectively give any company that signs up for one of these things - imagine .ibm, .disney, or .murdochsempire - the status of a country. Given recent reports that Apple has more cash on hand than the US government, that may merely reflect reality. But still.

Postel was writing in the year that the Internet was opened to commercial traffic. By 1995, with domain name registrations flooding into .com and trademark collisions becoming commonplace, discussions began about how to expand the namespace. These discussions eventually culminated in ICANN's creation.

A key element of the competing proposals of the mid-1990s was to professionalize the way the DNS was managed. Everyone trusted Postel, who had managed the DNS since its creation in 1983, but an international platform of the scope the Internet was attaining clearly could not be a one-man band, no matter how trustworthy. And it had become obvious that there was money in selling domain name registrations: formerly a free service, in 1995 registering in .com cost $50. ICANN's creation opened the way to create competing registrars under the control of each top-level domain's registry. As intended, prices dropped.

The other key element was the creation of new gTLDs. Between 2001 and 2003, ICANN introduced 13 hew gTLDs. And I will bet that, like me, you will never have seen most of them in the wild. Because: everyone still wants to be in .com.

Proposal for creating new gTLDs always attract criticism, and usually on the same grounds: the names are confusing, overlapping, and poorly chosen, and do not reflect any clear idea about what the DNS is *for*. "What is the problem we are trying to solve?" Donna Hoffman, an early expert on the commercialization of the Internet asked me in 1997 when I was first writing about the DNS debates. No one has ever proposed a cogent answer. Is the DNS a directory (the phone book's white pages), a system of categories (the yellow pages), a catalogue, or a set of keywords? This is not just a matter of abstruse philosophy, because how that question is answered helps determine the power balance between big operators and the "little guys" Internet pioneers hoped to empower.

You can see this concern in the arguments Esther Dyson makes at Slate opposing the program. But even the commercial interests this proposal is supposed to serve aren't happy. If you're Coca-Cola, can you afford to risk someone else's buying up your trademarked brand names? How many of them do you have to register to feel safe? Coca-Cola, for example, has at least half a dozen variants of its name that all converge on its main Web site: Coca-Cola with and without the hyphen, under .com and .biz, and also coke.com. Many other large companies have done the same kind of preemptive registrations. It may assist consumers who type URLs into their browsers' address bars (a shrinking percentage of Internet users), but otherwise the only benefits of this are financial and accrue to the registries, registrars, and ICANN itself.

All of that is why Dyson calls the new program a protection racket: companies will feel compelled to apply for their own namespaces in order to protect their brands. For it, they will gain nothing: neither new customers nor innovative technologies. But the financial gains to ICANN are substantial. Its draft budget for 2011-2012 (PDF) shows that the organization expects the new gTLD program to add more than $18 million to its bottom line if it goes ahead.

As net.wars has pointed out for some years now the DNS matters less than once it did. Without the user-friendly layer of the DNS email and the Web would never have taken off the way they did. But later technologies such as instant messaging, mobile networks, and many social networks do not require it once you've set up your account (although you use the DNS to find the Web site where you sign up in the first place). And, increasingly, as ReadWriteWeb noted in 2008, users automatically fire up a search engine rather than remember a URL and type it into the address bar. ICANN's competition is...Google. No wonder they need money,

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.

August 19, 2011

Back to school

Is a university education worth paying for? the Guardian asked this week on the day A-level results came out. This question is doing the rounds. The Atlantic figures the next big US economic crash will be created by defaults on student loans. The Chicago Tribune panics about students' living expenses. The New York Times frets that you need a Master's degree to rise above minimum wage in a paper hat and calculates the return on investment of that decision. CNN Money mulls the debt load of business school.

The economic value of a degree is a good question with many variables, and one I was lucky not to have to answer from 1971 to 1975, when my parents paid Cornell $3,000, rising to $5,000, a year in tuition fees, plus living expenses. What's happened since is staggering (and foreseen). In 2011-2012, the equivalent tuition fee is $41,325. Plus living expenses. A four-year degree now costs more than most people pay for a house. A friend sending his kid to Columbia estimates the cost, all-in, for nine months per year at $60,000 (Manhattan is expensive). Times four. Eight, if his other kid chooses a similar school. And in ten years we may think these numbers are laughable, too: university endowments have fallen in value like everyone else's savings; the recession means both government grants and alumni donations are down; and costs are either fixed or continue to rise.

At Oxford, the tuition fees vary according to what you're studying. A degree comparable to mine starts at £3,375 for EU students and tops out at £12,700 for overseas students. Overseas students are also charged a "college fee" of nearly £6,000. Next year, it seems most universities will be charging home students the government-allowed maximum of £9,000. Even though these numbers look cheap to an American, I understand the sticker shock: as recently as 1998 university tuition was free. My best suggestion to English 13-year-olds is to get your parents to move to Scotland as soon as possible.

These costs, coupled with the recession, led Paypal founder Peter Thiel to suggest that the US is in the grip of an about-to-burst education bubble.

Business school was always a numbers proposition: every prospective student has always weighed up the costs of tuition and a two-year absence from their paid jobs against the improved career prospects they hoped to acquire. But those pursuing university degrees were always more of a mixed bag big enough to include those who wanted to put off becoming adults and who liked learning and being surrounded by smart people to do it with.

Is the Net the solution, as some suggest? A Russian at a party once explained her country's intellectual achievements to me: anyone, no matter how poor, could take pride in learning and improving their mind. Why couldn't we do the same? Certainly, the Net is a fantastic resource for the pursuit of learning for its own sake, particularly in the sciences. MIT led the way in putting its course materials online, and even without paying journal subscriptions there are full libraries ready for perusal.

It's a lovely thought, but I suspect it works best for those who are surrounded by or at least come from a culture that respects intellectual pursuits and that kind of self-disciplined application. My parents came from immigrant families and fervently believed in education as a way to a better life. Even though they themselves lacked formal education past high school they read a great deal of high-quality material throughout their lives; their house was full of newspapers, books, and magazines on almost every topic. My parents certainly saw a degree as a kind of economic passport, but that clearly wasn't the only reason they valued education. My mother was so ashamed that she hadn't finished high school that she spent her late 60s getting a GED and completing a college degree. At that age, she certainly wasn't doing a degree for its economic benefits.

The Net is a trickier education venue if you really do value learning solely in economic terms and what you need is the credential. If it's to become a substitute for today's university system, a number of things will have to change. Home higher education in at least some fields will need to go through the same process as home schooling has in order to establish itself as a viable alternative. Employers will need to find ways for people to prove their knowledge and ability. Universities will have to open up to the idea of admitting home-study students for a single, final year (distance learning specialists like the Open University ought to have a leg up here). Prestigious institutions will survive; cheap institutions will survive. At the biggest risk are the middle ones with good-but-not-great reputations and high costs.

Popular culture likes to depict top universities as elite clubs filled with arrogant, entitled snobs. The danger this will become true. If it does, as long as they continue to fill the ranks of politicians, CEOs, and the rest of the "great and good", that group will become ever more remote from the people they govern and employ. Bad news, all round.

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.

August 12, 2011

"Phony concerns about human rights"

Why can't you both condemn violent rioting and looting *and* care about civil liberties?

One comment of David Cameron's yesterday in the Commons hit a nerve: that "phony" (or "phoney", if you're British) human rights concerns would not get in the way of publishing CCTV images in the interests of bringing the looters and rioters to justice. Here's why it bothers me: even the most radical pro-privacy campaigner is not suggesting that using these images in this way is wrong. But in saying it, Cameron placed human rights on the side of lawlessness. One can oppose the privacy invasiveness of embedding crowdsourced facial recognition into Facebook and still support the use of the same techniques by law enforcement to identify criminals.

It may seem picky to focus on one phrase in a long speech in a crisis, but this kind of thinking is endemic - and, when it's coupled with bad things happening and a need for politicians to respond quickly and decisively, dangerous. Cameron shortly followed it with the suggestion that it might be appropriate to shut down access to social media sites when they are being used to plan "violence, disorder and criminality".

Consider the logic there: given the size of the population, there are probably people right now planning crimes over pints of beer in pubs, over the phone, and sitting in top-level corporate boardrooms. Fellow ORG advisory council member Kevin Marks blogs a neat comparison by Douglas Adams to cups of tea. But no, let's focus on social media.

Louise Mensch, MP and novelist, was impressove during the phone hacking hearings aside from her big gaffe about Piers Morgan. But she's made another mistake here in suggesting that taking Twitter and/or Facebook down for an hour during an emergency is about like shutting down a road or a railway station.

First of all, shutting down the tube in the affected areas has costs: innocent bystanders were left with no means to escape their violent surroundings. (This is the same thinking that wanted to shut down the tube on New Year's Eve 1999 to keep people out of central London.)

But more important, the comparison is wrong. Shutting down social networks is the modern equivalent of shutting down radio, TV, and telephones, not transport. The comparison suggests that Mensch is someone who uses social media for self-promotion rather than, like many of us, as a real-time news source and connector to friends and family. This is someone for whom social media are a late add-on to an already-structured life; in 1992 an Internet outage was regarded as a non-issue, too. The ability to use social media in an emergency surely takes pressure off the telephone network by helping people reassure friends and family, avoid trouble areas, find ways home, and so on. Are there rumors and misinformation? Sure. That's why journalists check stuff out before publishing it (we hope). But those are vastly overshadowed by the amount of useful and timely updates.

Is barring access is even possible? As Ben Rooney writes in the Wall Street Journal Europe, it's hard enough to ground one teenager these days, let alone a countryful. But let's say they decide to try. What approaches can they take?

One: The 95 percent approach. Shut down access to the biggest social media sites and hope that the crimes aren't being planned on the ones you haven't touched. Like the network that the Guardian finds was really used - Blackberry messaging.

Two: The Minority Report approach. Develop natural language processing and artificial intelligence technology to the point where it can interact on the social networks, spot prospective troublemakers, and turn them in before they commit crimes.

Three: The passive approach. Revive all the net.wars of the past two decades. Reinstate the real-world policing. One of the most important drawbacks to relying on mass surveillance technologies is that they encourage a reactive, almost passive, style of law enforcement. Knowing that the police can catch the crooks later is no comfort when your shop is being smashed up. It's a curious, schizophrenic mindset politicians have: blame social ills on new technology while imagining that other new technology can solve them.

The riots have ended - at least for now, but we will have to live for a long time with the decisions we make about what comes next. Let's not be hasty. Think of the PATRIOT Act, which will be ten years old soon.

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.

August 5, 2011

Cheaters in paradise

It seems that humans in general are not particularly good at analyzing incentives. How else can you explain the number of decisions we make with adverse, unintended consequences? Three examples.

One: this week US newspapers - such as the LA Times, the New York Times, and Education Week - report that myriad states have discovered a high number of erasures on standardized tests or suspiciously sudden improvement in test scores. (At one Pennsylvania school, for example, eighth graders' reading proficiency jumped from 28.9 percent to 63.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.)

The culprits: teachers and principals. When tests determined only the future of the students taking them, the only cheaters were students. Now that tests determine school rankings and therefore the economic future of teachers, principals, and schools, many more people are motivated to ensure that students score highly.

Don't imagine the kids don't grasp this. In 2002, when I wrote about plagiarism for the Independent, all the kids I interviewed noted that despite their teachers' warnings of dire consequences schools would not punish plagiarists and risk hurting their rankings in the league tables.

A kid in an American school this week might legitimately ask why he should be punished for cheating or plagiarism when his teachers are doing the same thing on a much grander scale for greater and far more immediate profit. A similar situation applies to our second example, this week's decision by the International Tennis Federation to suspend 31-year-old player Robert Kendrick for 12 months after testing positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine.

At his age, a 12-month ban is an end-of-career notice. Everyone grants that he did not intend to cheat and that the amount of the drug was not performance-enhancing. Like a lot of people who travel through many time zones on the way to work, he took a jetlag pill whose ingredients he believed to be innocuous. He admits he screwed up; he and his lawyers have simply asked for what a fairer sentence. Fairer because in January 2010, when fellow player Wayne Odesnik was caught by Australian Customs with eight vials of human growth hormone, he was suspended for two years - double the sentence but far more than double the offense. And Odesnik didn't even stay out that long; his sentence was commuted to time served after seven months.

At the time, the ITF said that he had bought his way out of purgatory by cooperating with its anti-doping program, presumably under the rule that allows such a reversal when the player has turned informant. No follow-up has disclosed who Odesnik might have implicated, and although it's possible that it all forms part of a lengthy, ongoing investigation, the fact remains: his offense was a lot worse than Kendrick's but has cost him a lot less.

It says a lot that the other players are scathing about Odesnik, sympathetic to Kendrick. This is a watershed moment, where the athletes are openly querying the system's fairness despite any suspicions that might be raised by their doing so.

The anti-doping system as it is presently constructed has never made sense to me: it is invasive, unwieldly, and a poor fit for some sports (like tennis, where players are constantly on the move). The The lesson sent by these morality plays is: don't get caught. And there is enough money in professional sports to ensure that there are many actors invested in ensuring exactly that: coaches, agents, managers, corporate sponsors, and the tours themselves. Of course testing and punshing athletes is going to fail to contain the threat.

Kamakshi Tandon's ideas on this are very close to mine: do traditional policing. Instead of relying on test samples, which can be mishandled, misread, or unreliable, use other types of evidence when they're available. Why, for example, did the anti-doping authorities refuse Martina Hingis's request to do a hair strand test when a urine sample tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007? Why are the A and B samples tested at the same lab instead of different labs? (What lab wants to say it misread the first sample?) My personal guess is that it's because the anti-doping authorities believe that anyone playing professional sports is probably guilty anyway, so why bother assembling the quality of evidence that would be required for a court case? That might even be true - but in that case anti-doping efforts to date have been a total failure.

Our third example: last week's decision by Fox to allow only verified paying cable customers to watch TV shows on Hulu in the first week after their initial broadcast. (Yet more evidence that Murdoch does not get the Internet.) We are in the 12th year of the wars on file-sharing, and still rights holders make decisions like this that increase the incentives to use unauthorized sources.

In the long scheme of things, as Becky Hogge used to say while she was the executive director of the Open Rights Group the result or poorly considered incentives that make bad law is that they teach people not to respect the law. That will have many worse consequences down the line.

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