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April 24, 2015

When content wanted to be free

A long-running motif on the TV show Mad Men has been the conflict between the numbers guys - Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) - and the creative folks - Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) - who want to do inventive work that inspires emotional connection. As the discussion on the WELL concluded, the success of Google's all-text contextual ads says the numbers guys have won. For now.

This week, two German publishers lost in court against the creator of the browser plug-in Adblock Plus, which, like you'd think, blocks web ads for an increasing number of users worldwide. The publishers' contention: that Adblock Plus is "illegal" and "anti-competitive". Adblock Plus's project manager, Ben Willliams, welcomed the precedent on his blog, hoping it will help his company avoid future expense and resource drain "defending what we feel is an obvious consumer right: giving people the ability to control their own screens by letting them block annoying ads and protect their privacy".

Williams concludes by suggesting that publishers should work with Adblock Plus to develop non-intrusive forms of advertising and "create a more sustainable Internet ecosystem for everyone". Adblock Plus implements this by whitelisting sites (the largest of which pay for the privilege) that run acceptable ads. Cue the arms race: the fork Adblock Edge still removes all ads. As of June 2014, PageFair counted 150 million ad blocker users (PDF), up 69% from 2013.

I have to admit to some inner conflict here, because those who argue that blocking ads is theft have a point. I am indeed accessing content whose existence (and whose writers) is being financed by advertisers without the quid pro quo of my attention. If everyone does this, the whole shebang - including a chunk of how I make my own living - is unsustainable. I should be wracked with guilt. It's just that the ads make me hate the companies that pay for them, and I can't read a web page full of fine print with animations in my face. Similarly, it's hard to enjoy - or even follow - a US television show when it's interrupted by eight minutes of ads per half hour and each one is delivered at a volume easily 1/3 higher than the program I'm there to see. I plead in return that I buy DVDs, magazine subscriptions, and books, and contribute my own share of free content to the web, but that doesn't pay the same content providers. What seems particularly unreasonable to me is double-dipping: ads in situations where we already pay for admission. That would include DVDs; movie theaters; premium TV channels; the Transport for London phone app; sports stadia during live events; and on purchased clothing.

So the question remains: for the large chunk of the web that is financed solely by advertising, do we want professional content or not? If we do, how do we propose to pay people to create it?

It turns out that this question was considered in 2012 by Tim Hwang (last seen at We Robot 2015) and Adi Kamdar in their paper: Peak Advertising (PDF). The paper makes the explicit analogy between the diminishing effectiveness of online advertising and the diminishing returns after peak oil, if the energy required for extraction is greater than we can retrieve. The authors consider four indications that we might have reached the point of diminishing returns, and go on to speculate about how content on the Internet would have to evolve if it can no longer rely on advertising support as its dominant financial model. I found it a few months ago when I had the same thought: for many quarters now Google's revenues per click have been dropping (its latest results, released yesterday, continue the trend), and overall it seems impossible that there can be enough advertising in the world to pay for all the things people want to support that way.

Hwang and Kamdar highlighted three problems with the status quo in addition to the constant rise in ad blocking: demographics - advertising tends to reach the oldest (read: least desirable) customers; the click fraud; and escalating ad density (the kind of saturation that sends Americans to fast-forwarding DVRs rather than watch eight minutes of ads per TV half hour). Hwang and Kamdar predicted that over the next decade falling revenues will encourage consolidation and monopolistic markets for online services because only the largest vendors will have sufficient inventory to remain profitable. In addition, they predicted an increasing interest on the part of advertisers in collecting more and more (and more privacy-invasive) data about users. Finally, they predicted a rise in essentially unblockable content - that is, "sponsored" stories and product placement. As evidence they were on the right track, I offer the UK Internet Advertising Bureau's discussion of "native ads" ("make advertising part [of] the content experience").

web-firstbanner-1994-10-27.jpg"The end of the Internet as we know it," they said on Usenet when the first ad went up. Recalcitrant users: a disruptive technology.

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.

April 17, 2015


"What would you tell them in 1983 about the development of the internet in 1983, knowing what we know now?" David Post asked in a panel on robotics governance at this week's We Robot conference. (My write-ups from previous years: 2013, 2012) Kristen Thomasen, whose paper proposed using the automobile industry as a source of lessons for how the law should consider robots, suggested creating an international body that could identify and collaborate on cross-border problems as they arose.

My first thought was that I'd tell them to expect abuse because community does not scale. (It seems like small beer, but the early days of the internet were marked by such giddy communitarian hive-mind-is-wonderful hyperbole.) Post led the discussion to broader questions: if you're going to intervene in the development of new norms and law, when do you do it? How do you do it while remaining flexible enough to allow the technology to develop? Particularly with respect to privacy and teens' willingness to share information in a way that scares their elders, "Could we have had that conversation in 1983?"

This is the heart of We Robot: the co-chairs, Michael Froomkin and Ryan Calo run the conference precisely to try to get ahead of prospective conflicts. froomkin-r2d2.jpgSo Froomkin's answer to Post's question was to note that being "in the room" matters. Had "just one lawyer" been present when engineers were creating the domain name system its design could have been different because that lawyer would have spotted the issues we have been grappling with ever since. "People with different backgrounds and perspectives spot problems," he said, "and also solutions." And, he added, those changes are easier at the beginning, when there's less deployment and less money invested.

Thomasen had a good example ready to hand: the frame still commonly used for cars was not developed for safety but because the French designer who invented it thought it looked good. "If he'd been thinking about safety, he would have used arm brakes," she said, "because they're faster than feet." But the original design is the norm we all know, and changing it now would be about as feasible as replacing all the world's keyboards with Dvorak models.

This year's conversation reflected the more general rise of interest in robot governance. The Brookings Institution, for example, has recently published two relevant reports. The first is by Calo, arguing the case for a Federal Robotics Commission (in a conference paper, Woody Hartzog suggested the FTC might be an appropriate regulatory agency); the second is by Carnegie-Mellon PhD student Heather Knight discussing human responses to robots and advocating "smart social design". The two reports are helpfully summarized at Robot State. Internet pioneers were notoriously resistant to the idea of regulation; the issue looks different when you're talking about machines that interact with the physical world.

In deciding how the law should treat robots, how much does it matter if we anthropomorphize them? While largely accepting Bill Smart's characterization of robots at the first We Robot as "really fancy hammers", Kate Darling's paper discussed situations in which anthropomorphization might be useful. Could, she asked, robots be used in a prison context to rehabilitate or console? I'm of the fancy-hammers school myself - discussions of robots having sentience or rights rapidly brings out my inner biological supremacist. Ken Goldberg, discussing Darling's paper, noted stories that in the military there have been cases where humans have put themselves at risk to protect robots that had previously saved the lives of their peers. "How do we design the system to avoid that?"

Goldberg's suggestion, later echoed in comments by Tony Dyson, the designer of the original R2D2, was to design things that are "just anthropomorphic enough". R2D2, which Dyson designed for comedic, rather than practical, function, is a case in point: it looks nothing like a human, yet is beloved. "I don't think anyone falls in love with C3PO," Dyson told me, noting that he has had hundreds of emails from people who say they now work in robotics because of R2D2.

Darling's studies of interaction with and empathy for robots expose interesting gaps in human reactions, as did the conference itself. An enterprising Irish farmer has demonstrated using a drone instead of a sheepdog to herd a flock. Is this more or less sad than reading calls to replace human pilots with automated flight systems in the wake of the Germanwings crash? It's worth noting a pilot's rebuttal of this notion: even when they're not directly flying the plane, pilots work plenty hard. The dichotomy immediately reminded of Tom Paxton's song, Don'tt Slay That Potato: "Do you mean to say you'll eat us [potatoes] because we're not cute?"

Goldberg also noted the recent Moore's Curse article, which argues that the exponential increase in computing power over the last 20 years has led to unrealistic expectations. "Technology is a sigmoidal process," he said. "Reality is lagging quite far behind science fiction." Instead of the Singularity, Goldberg believes "the Multiplicity" is a better and stronger idea: many diverse machines working together with many humans is far more powerful. "What's important to make it work is diversity."

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.

April 10, 2015


In the February 2, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, the writer Alec Wilkinson begins an otherwise excellent article on the mathematician Yitang Zhang's success at solving a century-old mathematics problem this way:

I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x's and y's. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain - smart boys whose handwriting I could read - and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher's eyes.

Without wishing to be humorless about this - and admitting that in high school math was my *best* subject and I never thought I had any talent for writing - and while agreeing that this is, in its way, a refreshingly honest personal story that I would hate to see turned into an excuse for public shaming and a morality play...

Why is it acceptable for a writer in a major publication to say he cheated at math? Let's try that sentence some other ways. "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only passed high school English because I cheated." "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only passed high school Spanish because I hacked into the school's computer system and changed my grade." "I don't see what difference it can make now to reveal that I only made my high school rugby team because I took steroids."

We probably don't assign the same level of "badness" to those scenarios, but they all ultimately have the same effect: someone was awarded the rights that come with passing tests while avoiding the specified work assignments and consequently was accepted into whatever came next. Logically, in all those cases someone else lost the place taken by the person who cheated. Granted, Wilkinson's biography shows jobs won on merit, not credentials; before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that a rock and roll musician. You can't conclude that if he hadn't cheated at math he would not be an award-winning writer now.

But Wilkinson's career trajectory isn't what's bugging me. Instead, it's his presentation, and its acceptance by The New Yorker's editors, of this transgression as an entertaining opening gambit. The New Yorker, which prided itself for decades never (well, hardly ever) publishing an inadequately checked fact or a typo!

The also story reflects a truly damaging attitude: math is hard, no one really needs it, and cheating at it (or dropping it from the curriculum) is OK. Instead, algebra, on which Wilkinson foundered and which in 2012 was dismissed even more readily by Andrew Hacker in The New York Times, teaches abstract thinking and problem-solving. These are assets in every society in every era. Granted, Wilkinson grew up to write about the very complex problem that Zhang solved with a no doubt hard-earned comprehension of detail, and the irony of Wilkinson's opening gambit is not lost on me. But although you might argue that The New Yorker's value for mathematics was shown by its decision to publish this piece, the *story* was that familiar American trope of the lone wolf who solves a problem that has long defeated better-acknowledged experts. Every publication loves that story, no matter what the field.

Hacker's argument, which does at least advocate teaching statistics and the ability to understand and critically evaluate the numbers in use all around us, seems to me to blame mathematics for teaching and social failures. The statistics he quotes show that math is a major stumbling block for enormous numbers of kids. In a 1990s interview, Cochrane-new-casual4-big.jpgPeter Cochrane, the former head of BT Research, told me he was one of those kids. Having failed the 11-plus exams, he had to return to night school to get through the math barrier to build his fine career. If even bright, highly motivated kids have this trouble, shouldn't we look elsewhere for the source of the problem? Perhaps beginning with the repeated attitude, from parents, school teachers who self-select away from math, and TV shows and media all around, that math sucks.

Asked his view now by email, Cochrane was robust: "You can't do security without algebra or indeed electronics and many other topics." He added, "Choosing education courses that are easy gets you to the UK situation where all the baristas in my local coffee shop have degrees in sociology, media studies, political science, business studies et al! Not one of them has a future and not one of them will ever contribute to the generation of the GDP. They have no profitable future ahead of them and a debt mountain from their education costs. What a waste!"

I would argue that we still need sociologists, political scientists, and even (sigh) people with business degrees. But I'd like them to understand the basic rules of logical thought. Maybe The New Yorker can take the view that cheating to pass high school math doesn't matter because they don't perceive that as happening to *them* in the way that plagiarism would. But the lack of society-wide logical problem-solving ability certainly is happening to all of the rest of us.

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.

April 3, 2015

Fighting digital cholera

To resume: briefly, during the 2014 sell-off of the Royal Mail, Ofcom deliberated making the proprietary Postcode Address Finder database open data. Instead, over the objections of the Open Data Institute and others, PAF was sold off along with the rest of its owner.

So: you can use or disclose a postcode, but if you copy portions of the database you will be in violation of the 1996 database treaty. As public ownership recedes into the past, the argument that PAF is paid for by public money will grow daily weaker. If you can't fight it...then build your own.

The Open Data Institute is funding the alpha phase of Open Addresses, a project to create sustain a completely new address database. peterwellw.jpgAt the March 2015 teacamp, Peter Wells outlined progress since its January launch. It sounds painful.

At the outset the team thought bulk use of existing open data sets would provide a reasonable chunk of the nation's addresses. Companies House, for example, has 1 million "clean" addresses, the Land Registry has 18 million, and there's the Government Digital Service's voter registration...

It was then that they discovered digital cholera. In epidemiological terms, it takes only a few cholera bacteria upstream to infect long chains of waterways communities depend on. By analogy, the Land Registry uses Royal Mail products to validate the addresses they hold. Are they contaminated? Do you want to spend money fighting legal battles with the Royal Mail to find out? Similarly, they found that GDS uses validation to check postcodes. And on and on.

"It's like a pumping station at the top of the tree with [intellectual property] in it," he said. "It goes everywhere, and lots of people are tainted. We need to very carefully track the provenance of every bit of data we publish. We have a responsibility to the people who use that data, like the water board." The tale of the BBC's intentions to open up its archives has a similar pattern: a hopeful plan followed by a lot of IP-filled icebergs. A piece I wrote for the Guardian in 2011 explains how addresses are generated and the five-way licensing deals that control their use. Note their threat model a council website license was intended to protect against: that someone would compile a new database through repeated searches. So quaint and old-fashioned.

Open Addresses concluded that it would need to use crowdsourcing, yes, but not like *that*. To start, you can go to its portal and use the very easy form to enter any addresses you happen to know.

But, Wells said, "We needed a model that says we trust some forms of data more than others." Data from Companies House is more reliable something typed into a web form; newer data is more reliable than older data. "The half-life of a UK address is 15 years." World War II and regeneration efforts, for example, significantly remapped a number of cities. Other techniques include checking against maps - is it reasonable that this street has 20 addresses, based on the size of the road? - and inference. If a street has a number 5 and a number 11, inference suggests it also has 7 and 9, which can in turn be checked against a map. "We get about four to five extra addresses per address received," he said. Each address has a score and eventually will have its own URL "linking the physical and virtual world".

Ultimately Open Addresses hopes maintaining its database will cost perhaps 1% of what PAF does and will shrink wait times for new addresses to come onstream. At the moment, adding each of the 100,000 homes the UK adds annually can take several months as the address is generated, checked, geocoded, postcoded, and eventually published, during which occupiers have no validated address, blocking them from ordering pizza, buying insurance, or registering to vote.

Also planned is setting up a privacy advisory board. The teacamp responses showed how sensitive this area is for some people. To me, this reaction confuses "my address" and "an address I know". The address I live at has been in existence for more than 100 years; it is not *my* address but an address of which I am temporarily custodian. As an American, I'm surprised that people in country with a hideous, feudal system like leasehold would understand this instinctively. The database Open Addresses is building is a database of addresses, not a database of who lives where. However, using postcode clusters to aggregate health data turns out to expose people in thinly populated areas to easy reidentification; one must explore whether there are similar hidden gotchas..

The key underlying issue - the source of the digital cholera - is a relatively little-known piece of intellectual property law called the database treaty, agreed in 1996. At the time (I wrote about it for the Telegraph, but the piece is no longer online), opponents such as James Love warned that if enacted the treaty could severely restrict statistical reporting of facts that until then had been considered part of the public domain. The ramifications have turned out to be even more profound. Be careful what legislation you ignore.

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.