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July 28, 2006

Why I am standing for the ICANN board

Like many of the Net's founders and creators, I am an idealist: I want the Net to remain as free and unfettered as possible, avoiding the twin dangers of stagnation and disintegration, both of which are possible outcomes of poor management. ICANN's job is nominally to provide technical oversight of naming and addressing, but it is impossible to consider these issues without making what is essentially public policy. Governments, corporations, technologists, and lawyers have an important role to play, but they are not the only stakeholders, and it seems to me that Net *users* and consumers are insufficiently represented. I believe I can help represent that point of view. I also believe increased representation of that point of view is necessary. The uniform dispute resolution procedures, for example, are generally considered to be disproportionately weighted in favor of large corporations at the expense of the very small businesses and individuals that the Net is supposed to empower.

The Internet was famously decentralized to withstand a bomb outage. Even so, from the earliest days there have been a number of benevolent dictators who guided the development of specific areas or applications. It is to some extent unavoidable that assigning unique identifiers – names, numbers, and ports – must be handled by one or more central authorities. The most visible aspect of this, the Domain Name System, for all that it has scaled well since Paul Mockapetris devised it in the 1980s, is a single, central point of failure managed by an organization that no one understands and few people trust.

The lack of trust is partly unavoidable. ICANN's predecessor, Jon Postel, was a rare man whom almost everyone trusted. Had Postel lived, he might have been able to act as a guarantor of the fledgling ICANN and been able to transfer some of that trust. After his untimely death and in his absence, it was inevitable that Netizens would treat any new authority with suspicion, especially since many had already vehemently rejected the earlier proposed gTLD-MOU that was widely interpreted (however incorrectly) as a "coup".

But much of today's distrust was not unavoidable. Despite ICANN's insistence that it is an open and accoutable organization, observer after observer has complained that while portions of its official meetings are public decisions are in reality made behind closed doors, often in advance. While I appreciate that the changing meeting venues are intended to avoid giving an unequal advantage in attendance to any one nation or group of nations, the meetings' perpatetic nature make it hard for observers without significant funding to attend on any regular basis. Therefore, it is even more crucial for ICANN to engage the Internet community at large on questions of policy and direction. The decision to do away with elected At-Large board members was widely perceived to derive from a dislike of the electoral results; that, too, has made ICANN look secretive and unaccountable.

The past cannot be changed, but the future can. ICANN has frequently stated that it intends to be publicly accountable and open, and perform its duties of technical oversight by consensus. But because code is law (Amazon UK), technical decisions have public policy consequences. "Technical oversight" is an incorrect description unless ICANN's mission becomes the janitorial role of merely implementing technical decisions made by others (a role to which some have argued it should be constrained). ICANN's latest strategic planning statement (PDF) expresses no such intent. Instead, it says, "The continued evolution of the Internet, especially the DNS, brings with it an increasing number of policy issues of ever increasing complexity that need to be decided through the ICANN process."

But as a policy-making body ICANN has the endemic structural problem of lacking the checks and balances that constrain a democratic government's behavior. Admittedly, technology moves fast and democratic deliberation takes time. As long as ICANN is tied to the Department of State, there is at least some small measure of democratic oversight. WSIS, for all its flaws, is made up of representatives of democratically elected governments. Other technical bodies, such as the IETF, make technical policy by opening their meetings and allowing full participation; technical merit gets you heard. The early Internet made history for its openness, using RFCs to suggest, not impose, technical changes. As ICANN's strategic plan itself recognizes, this is a key moment in ICANN's history: if it is to become independent it must find a way to become truly accountable. It would be a betrayal of every principle on which the Internet was founded for the Internet's most important single point of failure to be completely controlled by a self-selecting body whose inner deliberations and functioning remain obscure.

In these latter days, it is hard for anyone who is not, as I am not, a programmer (or lawyer) to make significant contributions to the Internet's development. The Internet in its many aspects has been my main focus as a London-based journalist since 1991. I continue to make that choice because I want to help push Internet policy and development in what I feel are the right directions: toward openness and experimentation, away from closure and control.

I believe that serving on the ICANN board would be a logical continuation of my work over the last 15 years.

P.S.: I also really love to travel.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 21, 2006

I blog, therefore I am

According to a new report (PDF) from Pew Internet, the US is home to 12 million bloggers. It only seems like more. About 57 million Americans read them. And guess what? Bloggers are just like us.

Pew came up with some interesting numbers. More than half of bloggers (54 percent) are under 30. Gender is balanced. Race is not: 74 percent of American Internet users are white, but only 60 percent of bloggers. Most view it as a personal pursuit, and the biggest share – 37 percent – say that the topic of their blog is "my life and experience". Only 11 percent name politics as their chief topic. A tenth spend ten or more hours a week on their blog.

A third see blogging as a form of journalism. This bit led CBS news to crow, "Blogs not replacing journalism just yet". Foolish. About half, the report also notes (further down, past the executive summary that's all a deadlined journalist may have time to read), spend time trying to verify facts and include links to original source material, more commonly among those over 30 or with college degree.) Somewhat fewer – 40 percent – quote other people and/or media directly; understandable, since if you don't have the imprimatur of a major media outlet you are likely to think you can't get access, and sources may indeed not be willing to give their time. Fewer – 38 percent – post corrections; fewest of all – 30 percent – get permission to post copyrighted material sometimes or often. It's not clear from the report how often those correction-posters make mistakes (perhaps a better key to whether it's journalism). I think the copyright question is irrelevant; you do that if you have a lot of readers, influence, or money. You're unlikely to think it matters otherwise.

But more importantly, who cares? Certainly, some of the best blogs are written by journalists or professional writers. But not all: they're written by scientists, lawyers, and technologists. But it's sophistry to worry about whether the results are journalism. It's one of those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin questions: what's the difference between a newspaper, a news site, a community blog, and a different community blog? In fact, although journalists seem to be obsessed with subsuming blogging into journalism, it's arguable that eventually all media will be a subset of blogging.

What's really frustrating is the stuff they didn't ask. Only 15 percent (mostly people over 50) say making money is a major or minor reason for blogging. Only 8 percent say they make any. Those who do make money do so from tip jars, selling stuff, Amazon Associates, Google Adsense, and, for one in five, premium content. Well? How much money do they make? Which of those income-producing options do they find is most successful? Have they changed how they blog to try to increase revenues? Are we including the people who are paid to write blogs for Gawker or one of the other Blog Empires? Many blogs – for example, Lawrence Lessig's – seem to me to fall under the category of "professional development": their blogs are a way of thinking through ideas that will eventually wind up in books or lectures, a process helped by the feedback they get from commenters. That's not directly making money, but it's not a hobby either. On this point, Pew demonstrated a problem I categorize as "PWJs": People With Jobs have trouble understanding the seamless lives some of us have, where there is no clear division between "work" and "recreation", and where anything that might be a "hobby" for a PWJ is subsumed, as much as possible, into what a PWJ might call "work".

Which leads to the other mainstream media complaint. More than half of bloggers blog "for themselves", which Information Week boiled down to "All About Me". Again: how silly. You can blog for yourself, while simultaneously keeping notes on things you're afraid you'll forget, documenting the weird things that happen around you, keeping your friends up-to-date, and even campaigning for political change. Do journalists criticize filmmakers for making movies to express themselves? Do journalists point the finger at themselves for writing as a way of showing off in public? Are they seriously saying that it's somehow less noble to write about things you care about than things you are required to care about if you want to keep your job (the reality for many, if not most, working journalists)? Do I sense a little envy here?

In fact, frustration – not mentioned in the Pew Internet study (which cautions, by the way, that its sample of 223 was very small, though statistically representative) – is, in my experience, a key driver of why a lot of people blog. I'd bet that the racial disproportion Pew notes is due to non-whites' frustration with traditional media, which is disproportionately white. Journalists blog so they can write about the stories they can't get into their own papers. Some people blog because they are so frustrated with the state of the nation. If Alf Garnett, recreated in the US as Archie Bunker, were alive now, he'd be blogging those pub rants.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 14, 2006

Not too cheap to meter

An old Net joke holds that the best way to kill the Net is to invent a new application everyone wants. The Web nearly killed the Net when it was young. Binaries on Usenet. File-sharing. Video on demand may finally really do it. Not, necessarily, because it swamps servers, consumes all available bandwidth. But because, like spam, it causes people to adopt destructive schemes.

Two such examples turned up this week. The first, from the IP Development Network, the brainchild of Jeremy Penston, formerly of UUnet and Pipex, HD-TV over IP: Who Pays the Bill? (PDF), argues that present pricing models will not work in the HDTV future, and ISPs will need to control or provide their own content. It estimates, for example, that a consumer's single download of a streamed HD movie could cost an ISP £21.13, more than some users pay a month. The report has been criticized, and its key assumption – that the Internet will become the chief or only gateway to high-definition content – is probably wrong. Niche programming will get downloaded because any other type of distribution is uneconomical, but broadcast will survive for mass-market.

The germ that isn't so easily dismissed is the idea that bandwidth is not necessarily going to continue to get cheaper, at least for end users.

Which leads to exhibit B, the story that's gotten more coverage, a press release – the draft discussion paper isn't available yet – from the London-based Association of Independent Music (AIM) proposing that ISPs should be brought "into the official value chain". In other words, ISPs should be required to have and pay for licenses agreed with the music industry and a new "Value Recognition Right" should be created. AIM's reasoning: according to figures they cite from MusicAlly Research, some 60 percent of Internet traffic by data volume is P2P, file-sharing, and music has been the main driver of that. Therefore, ISPs are making money from music. Therefore, AIM wants some.

Let's be plain: this is madness.

First of all, the more correct verb there is "was", and even then it's only partially true. Yes, music was the driver behind Napster eight years ago, and Gnutella six years ago, and the various eHoofers. But now Bittorrent is the biggest bandwidth gobbler, and the biggest proportion of transferred data transferred is video, not music. This ought to be obvious: MP3 4Mb, one-hour TV show 350Mb, movie 700Mb to 4.7Gb. Music downloads started first and have been commercialized first, but that doesn't make it the main driver; it just makes it the historically *first* driver. In any event, music certainly isn't the main reason people get online: that is and was email and the Web.

Second of all, one of the key, underrated problems for any charging mechanism that involves distinguishing one type of bits from another type of bits in order to compensate someone is the loss of privacy. What you read, watch, and listen to is all part of what you think about; surely the inner recesses of your mind should be your own. A regime that requires ISPs to police what their customers do – even if it's in their own financial interests to do so – edges towards Orwell's Thought Police.

Third of all, anyone who believes that ISPs are making money from P2P needs remedial education. Do they seriously think that at something like £20 per month for up to 8mbps ADSL anyone's got much of a margin? P2P is, if anything, the bane of ISPs' existence, since it turns ordinary people into bandwidth hogs. Chris Comley, managing director of Wizards, the small ISP that supplies my service (it resells BT connections), says that although his company applies no usage caps, if users begin maxing out their connections (that is, using all their available bandwidth 24 hours a day, seven days a week), the company will start getting complaining email messages from BT and face having to pay higher charges for the connections it resells. Broadband pricing, like that of dial-up before it (when telephone bills could be relied upon to cap users' online hours), is predicated on the understanding that even users on an "unlimited" service will not in fact consume all the bandwidth that is available to them. In Comley's analogy, the owner of an all-you-can-eat buffet sets his pricing on the assumption that people who walk in for a meal are not in fact going to eat everything in the place.

"The price war over bandwidth is going to have to be reversed," he says, "because we have effectively discounted what the user pays for IP to such a low level that if they start to use it they're in trouble, and they will if they start using video on demand or IPTV."

We began with an old Internet joke. We end with an old Internet saying, generally traced back to the goofy hype of Nicholas Negroponte and George Gilder: that bandwidth is or will be too cheap to meter. It ought to be, given that the price of computing power keeps dropping. But if that's what we want it looks like we'll have to fight for it.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 7, 2006

If it's Wimbledon it must be television

Without a lot of fanfare, Wimbledon this year has been offering video on demand from its Web site: an all-access pass for the entire fortnight cost £9.95, and I paid it to try out the service.

In recent years, Wimbledon has become the time to catch up on New TV. This year I've been playing off the video-on-demand downloads against digital and analog terrestrial and interactive cable. On Mad Monday – the second Monday, when Wimbledon insanely packs all 16 men's and women's fourth round singles matches into one day – I had all them going at once.

The best quality, at least here, was digital terrestrial, viewed on a 15.4in widescreen laptop via an external Freeview box. Widescreen format really suits tennis. The biggest choice of channels, though (five, to digital terrestrial's three or four), was on interactive cable. Analog displays here in 4:3, and although the picture quality is nice, the format is decidedly second-rate.

The official Wimbledon downloads are 4:3. Each time you download or open a file you are required to log in with your email address and password: they are protected content. If, however, you cheat by finding a utility strip off the DRM (thereby breaking several national laws) the 1Mb versions look watchably good sized up. (Some of these hacked versions are beginning to appear on torrent sites.)

Let's leave aside the whole DRM-is-evil thing, aside from noting that the Wimbledon site says you have access to the files you have paid to download for 45 days. I assume they turn into pumpkins after that.

Traditionally, the BBC and Wimbledon collaborated so that the matches people most wanted to see were on the biggest courts and the most available channel at the most convenient viewing time for the biggest number of people. In other words, Henman on Centre at 5:30pm, when people are coming home from work. Today's interactive coverage grows out of that idea, and so beyond a few basic principles it's difficult to predict what match will be broadcast when on which channel.

What is a channel? Wimbledon publishes its match schedule by the court. You can't predict exactly what time any match after the first will start. Anything can happen: rain, player injury, straight-set wipeout, six-hour marathon. And they keep switching around, which is unhelpful if you're going out.

Logically, in our new world, a channel should be a court. Occasionally, the digital terrestrial coverage worked like this, and it was helpful during rain delays that while the main broadcast channel (BBC2) busied itself with nature documentaries and replays, you could see the covers being rolled back and estimate accurately what time play would resume. Given enough cameras on site, you, the obsessive viewer, could deploy tuners and displays so you had a window onto every court and could move among them any way you liked.

Or a single topic. Let's have the "Practice Court channel." You can learn a lot about what the players are working on and how they build their strategies and games. Or how about the "Interview room channel", perhaps complete with a competition in which viewers get to pretend to be players and prizes are awarded for the most absurdly cliched answers? IBM competitors might particularly like the "IBM Hospitality Suite channel". And all of that is without the video clips that fans film and post.

The online Wimbledon Live service works more like that, but its basic unit is the match, not the court, and in my experience when a match finishes you have to restart the stream for the next match. The more useful thing is the archive, which lets you download and watch all sorts of stuff that generally doesn't get broadcast, such as veterans' matches, juniors, and early round mixed doubles. It's still not complete – of the 64 first-round women's singles matches 35 are available for download (compared to 40 of the men's) – but it's a lot closer.

We asked what a channel was, but that's small fry: writing in the Guardian this week on the contentious Television Without Frontiers EU directive, Peter Warren asked what is television? It used to be defined by the physics of its transmission. The BBC transmission of the match between Anastasia Myskina and Amelie Mauresmo is obviously television; is it still television if it's downloaded from the Wimbledon site? Or if someone sits courtside and sends clips to YouTube? Or if you happen to live overlooking the courts and set up your own camera, which you stream only to your circle of IPTV buddies?

We are rapidly moving towards a world where what we have thought of as television is increasingly a giant pool of video clips of varying lengths made with varying levels of funding and skill and transmitted via many different means. In the traditional channels' struggle to stay afloat, it seems to me that sports are going to be increasingly important because they have a characteristic almost nothing else shares: people want the emotional experience of seeing big pictures of them from faraway places in real time when they are actually happening.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).