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March 27, 2015

Five impossible things before breakfast

One: Monday evening saw a Cybersalon debate at the House of Commons on digital citizenship with the aim of redirecting policy to recognize that "digital citizen" means a lot more than "digital consumer". When, as Cybersalon organizer Eva Pascoe asked not long ago, did the future become something that happens to us rather than something we plan for? cybersalon-hoc-digitalcitizen-2015-03.jpgThe plan is to spend the next six months working out what "digital citizenship" really means. Meantime, said Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East, with the general election only six weeks away and political party membership dropping in some areas to double digits, it's a good opportunity to join and influence their policy direction.

Two: Last week's Intelligence and Security Committee report on surveillance was generally taken to give surveillance a pass. While it criticized the laws' opacity and recommended increased accountability and transparency, it said GCHQ's activities were legal. Less discussed is the growing government schizophrenia of advocating both greater infrastructure cybersecurity *and* security service/law enforcement back doors in encryption software and hardware, a desire most explicitly stated by British Prime Minister David Cameron to kick off the electioneering season in January. It's a great example of magical thinking: believing that it's possible to make a hole that only good guys can use.

Three: Instinctively, it's hard not to be outraged on discovering that in 21 US states, lobbying has produced laws banning municipalities from deploying their own public broadband. Last month, the . Apologists for such laws tend to argue that municipal broadband distorts the market and discriminates against smaller ISPs that need the cross-subsidy from municipalities' customers to fund spreading broadband into the surrounding rural areas that municipal broadband won't serve. In a country the size and lack of density of the US, there are plenty of such unincorporated areas, and commercial services are often not particularly interested in serving them either. Rural areas need broadband the most, but unfortunately they generally have the poorest availability - cable doesn't typically go there, and many residences are too far from their nearest exchanges for DSL. But there is another wrinkle: what if the price of free municipal broadband is data privacy? This issue was raised by the Electronic Privacy Information Center as long ago as 2006, but more recently, Purple Wifi made a deal with the City of York that the city boasts gives it data to analyze and share with local businesses. Economic realities mean that the people with the least choice, the people government should be protecting, will be the ones least able to opt out.

Four: "What should the BBC do?" The person asking me was a BBC researcher who had asked me to speak to a bunch of his colleagues in February. First thought: you're asking *me*? Further thoughts followed immediately. More or less in order:

- Save the license fee;
- Understand itself as not just a "broadcaster" but as part of a conversation;
- Grow its own stars by sharing and teaching skills;
- Provide public access to studios, both radio and TV, much the way US municipalities required cable companies to do as a condition of licensing. Sure, that let to many 1980s programs mocked in movies and on sitcoms, but it continues today and also led to some good stuff (much like the internet). Even if YouTube's terms and conditions weren't changing, why should it be the preferred location for UK creators' content?;
- Foster genuinely local television, perhaps through peer-to-peer;
- Stop buying programs from Rupert Murdoch.

Five: The tiny cul-de-sac I live on is having a dispute with the residents of a much larger street across the railway line and running alongside it (where we dead-end into it). At issue is their desire not to look at graffiti murals sprawled over the sides of our houses versus our desire not to have an 11-foot fence blocking the light from the end of the street. Or, to be more precise, a newly-built six-foot fence built above an existing five-foot brick wall. Disputes like these, where no one is particularly wrong but where competing interests collide, is why you need someone - in this case, local councillors - to come in and try to balance the competing demands. Unfortunately for us, the population that hates graffiti has been complaining copiously for ten years and is a lot larger and noisier than the population of our small street, who would just like our light and the look of our street back and didn't have anything to complain about until last week. (The lack of consultation is a separate issue.) When we talk about governance on the internet and the rights of digital citizens, this is the kind of balancing act we will need to create structures to enable. Most net.wars are more directly opposed: the trauma of public shaming and abuse versus the right to freedom of expression; rights holders versus file-sharers; open versus closed. If we want real digital public spaces, we will need more nuanced arbiters than today's take-it-or-leave-it contracts imposed without negotiation by corporate owners.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

March 20, 2015

Agreeing the truth

"It's just a database. It's just *software*."

Folks, Preston Byrne gives you...bitcoin.

At this year's Tomorrow's Transactions Forum, there was a sense, more than in previous years (such as 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010), of standing at a crossroads. The zeitgeist was less about the desirability of getting rid of cash (though host Dave Birch - head.jpgDave Birch, the "global ambassador" for Consult Hyperion, still longs for death for both cheques and cash), and more about upcoming "monetary pluralism". The latter theme was reflected in art competition assignment to devise monetary systems with embedded social values. The three shortlisted artists proposed trading based on environmental effects, financial transfers effected by transferring bacteria between humans (people on antibiotics: the new underclass), and virtual theft of historic buildings.

The point about bitcoin's being "just software" is this: scalpel away 1ibertarian gold-bug hype and what remains is the blockchain, a technology Byrne's company is working with to enable faster, cheaper chains of transactions. In practice, Elizabeth Rossiello, the CEO of BitPesa, explained her booming Nairobi-based 18-month-old business: someone sending money to Africa starts in their currency of choice, BitPesa transfers it as bitcoin and dispenses local currency at the other end. BitPesa's commission: 3 percent. The point, Rossiello said, is that in the countries she serves banks don't operate, Paypal is blocked, and "There's nothing that works right now." Bitcoin, she said, isn't vaccinating kids or cleaning up the water supply, but it is fulfilling a real user need "even though the technology might be meant for something else". Within a week of her company's launch, "We proved that one aspect of being poor is not lack of skills or equipment, but lack of liquidity." As backup, Jem Bendell cited Will Ruddick, who started an alternative currency in Kenya to help alleviate the waste of human lives.

These solutions to real problems put a different cast on technologies and solutions more typically presented in first-world terms of not wanting to think about money when completing a transaction, to which it's hard not to think, "That's because you *have* it." Removing friction that slows customers down is a yay for retailers, brands, and people in the supermarket checkout line, but in other contexts keeping some friction in the loop may be desirable. It's an essential part of Michael Lewis's case in Flash Boys: shaving milliseconds off the transit between exchanges was giving certain traders unfair advantages and disrupted transparency. On the indebted-individual level, yes, race through the supermarket checkout - but never turn on "one-click".

Heather Schlegal suggested that an important element of the "sharing economy" is the separation of payment from personal transaction. It's a lot easier to make friends with the guests and hosts/drivers you meet through Airbnb or Lyft because handing over cash disrupts in-person emotional connection. It made sense when she said it; a day later, it sounds like a delicate suspension of disbelief, like buying a girlfriend experience. Her story, however, pointed to one of Birch's top five trends for 2015, which he believes will effect radical transformation: in-app payments. Today, 90 percent of mobile phone payments are inside apps "despite the fact that apps are a bit rubbish". As they improve they do they will talk to each other: the train app will be paid directly by the American Express app, and all you will know is you got on the bus and traveled successfully to your destination.

As a consequence, Birch said, "The pressure of globalization from the last 18 years begins to go away." Re-localization: part of the success of global credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard is that no one wants to carry a thousand cards. If they're all on one phone, who cares? This was Byrne's point about blockchains: the rule books are distributed; all changes are tracked; write permissions are controlled by public key cryptography; knowledge of the rules does not confer the ability to change them. It is a system for "agreeing the truth".

Many more kinds of money is a logical consequence of all this: BitPesa users don't care if BitPesa transfers everything in bitcoin or frequent flyer miles as long as they put in British pounds and the recipients get Kenyan shillings. We only care about such intermediate transfers today because of the cost and difficulty added by myriad middlemen all take their cut and add delay. Collapse all that, mix in incipient open banking, and there's the "midlife crisis" Birch says money is having. In his 2013 book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage argued that the centralized corporate media of the last 150 years was historically the anomaly; true of money, too?

Even if Schlegal's emotional connections sounded uncomfortably Californian, given the British context, she touched on an aspect of money that was outlined by Nigel Dodd, a sociology professor at the LSE and author of the recent book The Social Life of Money. In it, he, too, sees monetary pluralism in our near future. Money, Dodd said, is "shaped from inside by the social practices of its users". We think of it as a noun - something we have. Instead, he sees it as a verb: something we do. "Money is a process, not a thing." Isn't that just like software?

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

March 13, 2015


"Libraries should be seen as a safe place," Hermann Rösch said yesterday. He was speaking at a meeting convened by the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) to discuss libraries and privacy with an eye on the future.

Since the dawn of the internet libraries have struggled to explain why they're still needed. A key element is that librarians don't simply throw an undifferentiated pool of information out there and expect people to cope. Instead, they select, order, and organize information. It's what Google and Wikipedia also say they do, but librarians will tell you their work is different and more complex than either. Karen Coyle, who's been writing and talking about these issues for decades, has a nice summary of the equalizing effect of libraries in providing access to knowledge - the giants on whose shoulders Isaac Newton said he stood in order to see further:

Oftentimes, the library has a role in providing those giants. In a small library, what the library owns will necessarily be a subset of the knowledge on a topic. In a large library, where the number of documents on a topic is way beyond the capability of most researchers to absorb, the organization of the materials will determine what researchers discover. Even if collection development were a perfect process, with unlimited funds, unlimited space, and absolute neutrality, the library in some way has an effect on future knowledge.

Thumbnail image for kcoyle-2006.jpgCoyle goes on to ask why counting sales or links is seen as neutral while "attempting to make a selection of the most important works in a subject area within a limited budged is looked at askance." The notion of algorithmic neutrality has been thoroughly challenged, most recently by University of Maryland professor Frank Pasquale in his book Black Box Society. Algorithms *launder* pre-existing prejudices, Pasquale writes, because the results of those prejudices are already embedded in the historical data they analyze.

The idea that seemed to emerge from yesterday's meeting was that libraries can stake their place in the world by becoming explicit antidotes to the noise and data leakage that pervade daily life. To do this, they need to resist being coopted into the commercial datasphere. As so many said, intellectual freedom - reading, writing, thinking - requires privacy and the mental silence that is vanishing from the world as advertising invades more and more public spaces where it used to be possible to be alone with your own thoughts.

As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said, "Libraries are generating far more data than they used to." Old library: unrecorded searches of the card catalogue; unmonitored browsing in the stacks; paper records of borrowing that did not need to be kept once the book had been returned. New library: web analytics, social media to connect to patrons, apps, widgets, cookies...just think "smartphone". All of these were designed for the data-hungry commercial market.

It was in Rősch's kick-off to this discussion that he noted that German law libraries are thinks of libraries as "the third place", a *trusted* place. Knowing that what you are reading is not being monitored is crucial. Studies last year noted a post-Snowden chilling effect on Google searches.

Libraries have key decisions to make on behalf of their users. Should they embrace supporting services their patrons may want without understanding the privacy risks? Or should they decline to facilitate the "sharing economy"? Many libraries operate at the behest of governments with backing from corporate sponsors, a multi-sided relationship that leaves them with questionable power to decide their fate.

What Caldwell-Stone proposed was "principled procurement" - that libraries should use the bargaining power of prospective customers for platforms such as Biblio Commons to dictate licensing clauses such as how, with whom, and when data may be collected and shared. They should be aware of the spying inherent in social media buttons, or the digital rights management that protects ebooks such as Kindle or Adobe. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the principles it regards necessary for intellectual freedom. Among them is the right to privacy, yet it's being chipped away simply by failing to understand the implications of the technology they install, sometimes with little choice. Alison Macrina, through her Library Freedom Project, has been trying to reverse this trend by training librarians to use open source software and privacy-enhancing tools: Tor, PGP, private browsing settings, content filtering configurations, and so on.

"It's not that people don't care," Macrina said. "It's that they feel despair that it's too far gone and there's nothing they can do." Her own goal is to "show librarians that immediate change is possible". She sees all these things - filtering, the almost exclusive use of proprietary software, data leakage - as "existential threats to libraries".

The standard media image of the librarian is stuffy, glasses-wearing, rule-bound, and traditional. And yet: the principles of intellectual freedom that they stand for and are passionate about are, in our time, contrary to the direction of travel of both governments and businesses. The library as sanctuary, where one can take safe refuge from the noise and monitoring outside, is truly radical while being completely traditional. Are they ready for this fight?

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

March 6, 2015


Every year since 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief, both academic staff at Beloit College in Wisconsin, produce the Mindset list, a depiction of the world view of that year's incoming 18-year-old freshmen. beloitprofs.jpgParticularly in its earliest years, it often got circulated around the internet by Baby Boomers pointing and giggling at "kids today". The "generation gap" between us and our parents centered on the Vietnam war and social change; today's gap is more like culture shock.

McBride's and Nief's original idea seems to have been to help their fellow professors communicate effectively with the year's incoming 18-year-old freshmen, avoiding too-dated references. I understand the thinking: a couple of professor friends lamented in 1985 that their students no longer laughed at Firesign Theater references. By now, The Mindset List has grown up into a mini-industry.

The first list, Class of 2002 (kids born in 1988), listed this: "Their lifetime has always included AIDS". They had also always had remote controls and answering machines. Now, that dates them: today's 18-year-olds have always had voice mail and have no idea what it means to "program a VCR".

I was reminded of the Mindset list last week when asked to speak about "Big data, the cloud, and what we can see of the future" to a meeting of eNACSO, the group of NGOs interested in child online safety. It was a tolerant invitation: they and I are usually on the opposite sides of arguments about web blocking and filtering, but they have become interested in children's privacy (which, I said, means everyone's privacy) and the data trade. I figured protecting kids required some understanding of how they think.

And so some items (paraphrased) from the Class of 2018 - that is, last September's freshman class, born in 1996:

- Hong Kong has always been part of China.
- Cloning has always been fact.
- There has always been "TV" designed to be watched exclusively on the web.
- One route to pregnancy has always been through frozen eggs.
- They and their friends gather on Skype, not in the local park.
- They have never had to hide their dirty magazines under the bed.

And, from the authors' Financial 2018 list:

- To them, Yellow Pages have never been yellow or contained in a book.

My estimate is that it was the Class of 2016 for whom the internet had always been a commercial medium with advertising. (The acceptable use policy barring commercial traffic was lifted in 1994, so that's the year the first big internet ecommerce sites were founded and when the first ads appeared.

I was thinking that talking about children's safety online requires some understanding of their world view. Everyone has some new medium that's a bugaboo: my parents thought comic books rotted the brain and banned them but didn't care how much television I watched; if I had a kid now I suppose I'd be fretting about their iPad use. When my friends' 30-something kids were young, I was so appalled by the children's TV they watched that I bought a VCR to show them old Bugs Bunny cartoons (which my mother called "so violent") and Marx Brothers movies. The show that set me off is, of course, now a classic. The internet is today's scary, new medium.

So for eNACSO (and later for ORG Brighton) I tried to imagine the future mindset of today's five-year-olds. One milestone will have already been passed, for the Class of 2020 the World Trade Center will never have existed in their lifetime. So, for the Class of 2028:

- "They don't know what getting lost is.
- They have never "surfed the internet".
- These things are "normal": surveillance, monitoring, an unforgiving database infrastructure that remembers minor infractions and makes them self-fulfilling prophecies, public shaming.
- Algorithms have always made major decisions about human lives.

Also on my list: fear, which became a topic of conversation at Brighton. Every generation has its fears: the 1980s were the Cold War; Vietnam was a very real threat for 1960s American teens, IRA bombs for 1970s Londoners. Today's kids are growing up in a culture that presents monitoring and surveillance as their protection from being blown up. Many other entries on that list - cashlessness (traceable electronic money instead of anonymous currency), school databases, and, especially, public shaming could create a generation that embraces caution and conformity. Or who knows: the economy could recover, their parents could be the ones who, like our Depression-era parents, are the cautious ones, and Class of 2028 could be the rebels. Timing is hard.

Finally, some possibilities for the Class of 2038 - the babies born in 2020:

- "Big data? What's that?"
- It's always been possible to 3D print physical objects, food, and human organs.
- Humans have always had robot companions, pets, servants, and cars.
- Software and electronics have always been able to change the physical world.

And a possibility that I hope we all act to avoid:
- Everyone has always had to pay individually for each access to copyrighted works

Whatever the coming generations' mindset turns out to be, it will reflect the decisions we make now.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.