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September 30, 2016

On the internet no one knows you're a...

julieandrews-victorvictoria.jpegMore than 20 years ago, I got a call from a BBC researcher planning a program about the internet. Could I, they asked (I can no longer remember the researcher's gender), come on the show and explain how the internet is dangerous for women?

Well, no, I said, I can't, because I don't believe it is. I expounded: women could participate on the internet without having to travel through areas where they didn't feel safe, especially at night. Safe behind the computer screen and miles of cabling, they didn't have to worry about being mugged, attacked, or raped. They - we - had an equal platform from which to speak. And, finally, we always had the ability to log out. You could hear the researcher's disappointment; after some back and forth, we hung up. I was not booked for that show; if I remember correctly there was at least one other such occasion.

At the time, there was a school of thought that held that women should use either gender-neutral or overtly male user names wherever possible, to rpotect themselves from unwanted attention of the wrong kind. This went alongside the general rule of thumb that if you encountered a female user name that behaved in a highly flirtatious manner the owner of that user name was almost certainly male. I disagreed, and loudly: if, I argued, women were not visible in online spaces, other women would be discouraged from joining them, and cyberspace would appear to be all male. Since the future was going to be online, this would mean women becoming invisible in public life How would this be helpful to anyone's long-term prospects?

This was a time when there was still a notion that the internet and computers were "boys' toys". Sometime around then, a well-known journalist from one of the national newspapers called me in my capaccity as a public skeptic to ask about some New Age belief or other. I don't remember what I said except that at the end of the interview, somewhat exasperated, I said that it would do women more good to join online networks than the cult of the Goddess or whatever the thing was about. A year later, my phone rang again, with a call from the same journalist. She said, ""When you said that, I wrote it down but I thought you were nuts. But I just got on CompuServe today, and oh, my God, I can't believe it."

We always like to think our era is ahead of the game: chronocentricity. Yet here we are in 2016, and the unfortunate venture capitalist John Greathouse has even more unfortunately suggested in the Wall Street Journal that women seeking IT jobs should neuter their names and social media profiles in the interests of getting past the first hurdle to serious consideration the IT jobs they are qualified for.

sarahjeong.jpgThe appalled reaction by many women has led him to recant and apologize - an apology we'll leave to Sorry Watch to analyze (we hope), though we'll spot Sarah Jeong's exasperated reaction on Twitter; PC Magazine's outline of Greathouse's relevant history; and takedowns from The Verge and Mic. The whole idea is antisocial and ineffective.

Sadly, Greathouse probably actually thought he was being helpful; I can't imagine what the Wall Street Journal editorial staff were thinking. You'd like to think this sort of thing had died out, like the publishers in Ruth Graham's story at Slate presumably have by now, and as has Mary Ann Evans, who didn't think people would take her books seriously if they knew they were written by a woman. Did anyone ever tell Marie Curie, "Honey, I know you're talented. But if you want the Nobel Committee to take you seriously, lose the moniker"?

The world of traditional folksong is full of ballads and songs like The Handsome Cabin Boy or The Female Highwayman, in which women dress up as men in order to have access to work and adventures they would otherwise be denied. Usually they're eventually publicly found out because they get pregnant. I'm not aware of songs about the later lives of the children born to these women. In my 20s, when I first encountered and sang these songs, what I saw was: women doing stuff! Cool! Now, I notice much more the fact that unless they were testing a lover's fidelity (as in "Sovay"), a lot of these ballad women didn't end up happy, which suggests the songs were intended as morality tales: break out of your proper role and Bad Things will happen to you. The father of that cabin boy's baby, for example, was the already-married captain; in other songs ("The Soldier Maid") she's successful but betrayed by a woman who falls in love with her.

Folks, some of these songs date back to the 18th century. Can't we do better *yet*?

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.

September 23, 2016

This sporting law

In his new book Spitting in the Soup the sports journalist Mark Johnson makes the case that until the last 150-odd years doping was an open and acknowledged part of sports. Today's prohibitions took root, he writes, when Pierre de Coubertin reinvented the Olympics as a modern phenomenon based on his own romantic ideal of the noble amateur. Not for Coubertin the grubby professional's struggle to gain an edge; instead, the gifted aristocrat who wins on pure talent (like some deluded tennis fans still insist that John McEnroe did.)

In 1998, when the Festina affair meant sports governing bodies could no longer pretend doping was limited to a few rogue individuals, one of the least welcome aspects was the involvement of traditional law enforcment. Willy Voet, a soigneur for the Festina cycling team, was caught at a national border, his car stuffed with various doping agents and illegal drugs, and eventually served a prison sentence. Would the IOC want to see police raid the Olympic village at dawn or crash medal ceremonies to forcibly drag away winners in handcuffs? Not so much.

The result, as discussed at the small and fascinating Sports Law conference last week, was to create an alternative, privately administered legal universe for sports: lex sportiva. The question those assembled considered: is sporting autonomy still sustainable?

The 2009-2016 TV show The Good Wife had fun showing how this works in (fictional) practice by setting a case in the Court for Arbitration of Sport ("Je Ne Sais What?", Season 4, episode 12). The comparison to internet regulation is compelling: private rights holder entities and governments increasingly want to devolve the policing of online content to ISPs and hosting services. Both sports and the internet are inherently international by nature, with stakeholders that range from single individuals and state-level NGOs to multinational corporations and national (or, in the case of the EU, multinational) governments. Which stakeholders are represented in governing bodies and how redress is managed are crucial to ensuring not only fairness but effectiveness.

Thumbnail image for Antoine-Duval_2014.jpgAnti-doping, the inevitable focus of much of the conference, is familiar to most of us; the conference's eye-opener was the makeup of CAS, the ultimate court of appeal in doping cases. It is, explained Antoine Duval, "difficult to think that CAS is independent as it stands now." Athletes are not involved in appointing judges, partly because other than in a few professional sports they're not organized for collective action. Worse, CAS cases pitting sports governing bodies against accused athletes are typically unbalanced. As Duval put it, "repeat players against one-shotters".

Therefore, he argued, CAS is dominated by sports governing bodies, who share the same basic position and interests (and to whom, as the recent McLaren report showed, athletes may be fungible). Unlike the commercial world, where arbitration is a choice, athletes are contractually forced to accept CAS's decisions. "It should be acknowledged as mandatory," Duval said, adding that the court should become transparent about who is nominated and by whom, and should include completely independent judges from outside the sports sector.

As I write this, the bus across Zurich passes a sign for the FIFA museum, backing up a point made by the employment lawyer Andrew Smith: Swiss national courts share a conflict of interest because both CAS and the IOC are based here. Was that in play in one ruling that held that there was no need to assess CAS's independence from sports governing bodies because all athletes share the same interest in doping-free sport? "They bring in a lot of money and tourism." Yet, he argued, arbitration may be preferable to the limitations and uneeven access to legal representation of national justice systems.

Johnson lays out the case that many of the claims underpinning the ban on performance-enhancing drugs - their medical danger, for example - are more myth than substance. That might be an argument for letting sporting bodies go on making their arcane rules. But the same does not apply, as Jack Anderson said, to match-fixing and corruption within and between the sporting bodies themselves. In that, they're no different from internet companies fighting privacy regulation, which, as former Privacy International director Simon Davies used to say, "are pathologically unable to regulate themselves".

What happens at present, argued Simon Boyes, at least under English law, is that courts refuse to rehear cases, and sports governing bodies become as infallible and unaccountable as the Pope. Eventually, he said, sports law that drifts too far from that of the societies it's based in, will have to undergo a seismic shift to come back into alignment.

According to Tom Serby, the autonomy of sports law also derives from de Coubertin. In his famous 1909 quote: "The goodwill of all the members of any autonomous sport grouping begins to disintegrate as soon as the huge blurred face of that dangerous creature known as the state makes an appearance."

John_Perry_Barlow.jpgCould he sound any more like John Perry Barlow in 1996? "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

And look how that's working out.

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.

September 16, 2016

New masters

Hirst-Shark.jpgThe late, great film critic Roger Ebert argued in April 2010 that games could never be art on the level of the great poets, composers, and filmmakers, a position he modified a few months later after nearly 4,500 comments convinced him he hadn't played enough games to have an informed opinion. I suspect he was showing his age a little: it's always easy to dismiss the new medium you didn't grow up with In their time, as some of Ebert's commenters argued, movies had to prove their quality, too - and many people are only just recognizing that TV is in a golden age of drama that means it, too, can no longer be sneered at just because it's television. Granted, a game can take a long time to play through - but so can Wagner's Ring der Niebelungen.

Of course, there's no reason games have to be art; no one expects that of tennis or football, even when a few individual players are spoken of as "artists". But what was notable at this week's IGGI Symposium was the number of areas in which games researchers are exploring what seem like analogues for known storytelling techniques that have been developed over millennia in (other) art forms. If a shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde can be art, why not a game?

"The exciting things in science happen when science meets the arts," one of IGGI's supervising professors said on Thursday by way of sending everyone back to work.

When I brought up Ebert's argument,Tom Cole, who is studying using the features specific to computer games to evoke emotion, commented that art is only recognized later, after time has passed. Fair point. Even so, in presenting his work, Cole noted that, "People read books and watch films, and it changes them, but it doesn't happen so much with games." Since games do evoke emotion - if only frustration - what is different?

Cole was one of several dozen PhD students showing off their work at this week's symposium. IGGI stands for "Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence", and is a sprawling PhD program including three universities (York, Essex, and Goldsmiths) and some 60 other partners. Some of their presentations would fit right in at any AI conference, a fact simply explained by Richard Bartle, who wrote the early 1980s multiplayer online game MUD.

bartle.jpeg"Games and AI are particularly compatible," he said, "because games have opponents who are intelligent, and games give AI something to be intelligent about in a controlled environment." In his own early experience, "I added AI so I could make the non-player characters more intelligent. Then they were too smart for the players and I had to dumb them down." So the two have gone hand in hand since the beginning; the talk given by DeepMind's Tom Schaur on the use of convolutional neural networks to design the company's Go champion fits in either type of conference.

UC Santa Cruz professor Michael Mateas, perhaps best known for Facade, has been working on auto-generated games for a decade or more, partly with the goal of "opening up the game space to those who couldn't otherwise make them".

You can see his point. The possibility exists that if games are not art now, it could be because of the technical complexity of the tools needed to make them. We are only at the beginning of game and story generators (something PhD student Emily Marriott is also working on), developing interactive narratives (discussed at length by Emily Short), and complex structures. We needed (and still need) computational power, for both developers and players, and bandwidth, and on top of that tools that artists who are not programmers can use. The technical barriers between artist and output are still high, compared to writing, painting, sculpture, music, and film, because you need so many different skills; but all these aspects are being worked on.

While writing this, I've been reminded that it's not that long - 40 years or so - since it was considered questionable whether science fiction could be art. In the early 1970s, I recall reading an essay by Ursula K. Leguin that argued the "for" case. Discarding a load of characters and pulp plots from previous decades, she described her encounter with the character she believed was the first truly fully rounded character in the genre. Step forward, Frodo Baggins.

However, the "is it art?" question isn't a fair representation of IGGI's work. It's particularly notable that two of the PhD students are focusing on entirely non-traditional uses of games: Jen Beeston (York) is looking at using games to improve wellbeing in neurological care homes, while Janet Gibbs (Goldsmiths) is working on how to create interfaces that simulate various senses. Her first interest is to create games that work for deaf and blind people, but she's also interested in simulating novel senses: magnetic direction, for example, and echolocation.

All of this points to a far more varied future than we typically realize. In future the question may not be whether the thing you're pointing to is art - but whether it's a game.

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.

September 10, 2016


Tim_Berners-Lee.jpgWhen he was creating the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee did two things of note. The first was to invent the thing. The other was to make it free. I'm sure he talked about it on other occasions, but I think it was at the domain name system's 21st birthday celebration where I saw Berners- Lee discuss (via video link) the importance of the decision not to patent the design and require people to pay a fee every time they clicked on a link; he praised his then-employer, CERN, for not pushing in that direction.

The web's enormous success was not inevitable, though it may seem so now (especially to those who've never known a world without it). At the time, it competed with several other attempts to provide a unified interface to the internet's many sources of information: Gopher, WAIS, Veronica (a search engine for Gopher), and Archie (a search engine for FTP file servers). One reason the web won was that in 1993 the University of Minnesota, where Gopher was developed, decided to charge a licensing fee.

Two things - this week's leaked draft EU copyright impact assessment - remind that there are other ways to make linking a pasttime only for the well-funded expert. The first, Case C-160/15, GS Media BV v Sanoma Media Netherlands BV, Playboy Enterprises International Inc., Britt Geertruida Dekker, is actually sort of framed as good news: "The posting of a hyperlink on a website to works protected by copyright and published without the author's consent on another website does not constitute a 'communication to the public' when the person who posts that link does not seek financial gain and acts without knowledge that those works have been published illegally." It's the next bit that kills you: "In contrast, if those hyperlinks are provided for profit, knowledge of the illegality of the publication on the other website must be presumed."

Thumbnail image for 404-not-found.pngWhat is "for profit"? In the original case, GS Media declined to delete links to photographs on an Australian site that had published them without permission. When the photographs were originally deleted from their original location, both the site itself and its users posted links to new locations where they could be found (the Net was ever thus). So under the judgment GS Media, which is a leading commercial news and gossip site in the Netherlands, is at fault for not removing the links on request. GS Media was using the same kind of argument that major torrent sites use: they don't host the material, they just tell you where to find it. If profiting from telling people where to find things incurs liability, all search engines are in trouble.

Let's face it: in the case of torrent sites the claim of ignorance has always been mostly specious. While the technology itself certainly has many uses other than distributing unauthorized copies of copyrighted material, sites that organize their browsable links into user-friendly categories like TV shows and movies, or that adorn their search results with official show photographs are explicitly undermining any disclaimer they might make.

The problem is that telling people where to find something is in fact what a link is. It should be obvious, for example, that when net.wars links to the story that Facebook has deleted the world-famous photograph of the "napalm girl" that appeared in posts uploaded by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and the Norwegian prime minister, I am showing my work - that is, the reference I used to back up the statement. I expect readers to know that it doesn't imply that I endorse either Facebook's action or the Guardian's reporting, or make any copyright claims. I do my best to use trustworthy sources. As this judgment's effects ripple outwards, a lot will depend on how "commercial" is defined. Is a blog for-profit because it sells ads, uses Google analytics, or promotes its writer's work? The target seems clearly to have been "sites like this one" - which would mean commercial media sites - but the court seems to be living in a time when those distinctions were still easy to make.

Similarly, the second of this week's attacks on the link, the leaked copyright draft, seems to have had in its sights restoring to publishers some measure of control over or recompense from large, powerful search engines. You could summarize this as the same issue that arises between network providers and internet sites and services: who owns the audience? Does the content provider pay the access provider for delivering the audience, or does the access provider pay the content provider for giving the audience a reason to be there at all? It's a symbiotic relationship, but both sides are always suspicious that the other guy is scooping the pool, that is to say, us.

As Julia Reda discussed in June, the EU has a history of viewing links as attempted copyright violations. In the early days, it was a struggle to get the exception for copies held temporarily in computer memory that linking implied. At this point, the web can't be killed by such a measure. But it can be locked down to newcomers. The Facebook case is a good example of why that shouldn't be allowed to happen.

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.

September 2, 2016


alicia-and-will.jpeg"I'm not into 'shipping the 'ships," she said. Everyone but me looked confused. She was 19, and seemed obvious to their uncertainty.

Her listeners included her 80-ish grandmother and her 55-ish uncle, who was probably the most purely analog of the bunch.

"She means she's not into worshipping the relationships," I said helpfully, figuring that no one but the original speaker would grasp that my knowing this indicates that I've spent too much time online TV forums. For those who haven't wasted their lives in this manner, a 'shipper is someone whose emotional lives are deeply tied to the relationships between the TV characters they have embraced. Can Jimmy and Gretchen survive the personal disclosure that ended last season on You're the Worst? Will Alicia and Will get it together on The Good Wife? On long-running series, many such relationships perforce become on-off just to manufacture conflict to mine (because we know there are no conflicts in settled relationships, right?), and that feeds the obsession as people try to explain the characters' inner motives. Saying, "One of the actors is doing a movie" or "The writers ran out of stories" is as welcome in this context as a motorcycle on the shared bicycle/pedestrian path along the side of London's Great West Road (which I encountered just last week). If the writers are so unwise as to give one character multiple intimate relationships (say, Buffy and Spike versus Buffy and Angel), the war between the two lots of 'shippers can run and run.

The rather animated discussion she and I went to have about social media and other sites led the uncle to ask this: "Is my 12-year-old son OK online?"

The reply, from the height of 19-year-old wisdom: "He'll be all right as long as he stays away from Tumblr."

Without much in the way of evidence, I suspect she just dated herself, not something 19-year-olds used to have to worry about. She was 12 when Tumblr launched in 2007, so she probably hit its sweet spot. Two years earlier, it might have been Reddit (founded 2005); a couple of years later maybe Snapchat (2011), WhatsApp (2010), or Instagram (2010). Twenty years ago: Usenet.

As a highly digerate friend said when his daughter was 13, it's genuinely difficult, even for parents who designed the technology, to understand how to guide their kids through the present landscape. My parents, born in 1906 and 1913, thought they knew how to ensure their kids grew up right: ban comic books. As their last child, born in 1954, I had no limits on TV, however, and they displayed no curiosity about what I watched.

So I suggested this to the uncle: ask him to show you what he does and where he likes to go. Granted, said son will not show his parent everything. But you can pick up clues to how much risk he's taking. What kind of personal information has he posted in site profiles? What criteria does he use to decide whether to pursue off-site communication with someone he only knows online? Does he hang out on various sites with his real-life friends, or does he like to explore on his own? What risks does he see others taking that he thinks are stupid? What does he make of the role models adults provide when they sext strangers dick pics or pile into the latest case of global shaming?

medievia.gifI've actually done this myself, although it's admittedly much easier when you're not the actual parent: the kid has less of a reflex to hide stuff from you. In 1999, when a friend's son was 15, for a time he liked a MUD called Medievia, which I guess was sort of an online Society for Creative Anachronism. I joined, to see what he was up to and what it was like. It was a real role reversal, and as such rather fun: here, he was the expert on how the world worked, and I was the child who could barely walk. He was kind enough to pat me on the head and give me a weapon. Given my extreme vulnerability, armor might have been more helpful. I also spent time watching him play a few of his favorite computer games, and followed him on the instant messaging choice of the day. It seemed the logical thing to do.

john-carr.jpegThis all seemed particularly relevant, as last week the House of Lords closed a consultation on children and the internet. In the oral evidence (linked from that page), Childnet CEO Will Gardner and indefatigable campaigner John Carr talk about what more they believe online service providers (as well as schools, teachers, and public education) should be doing to protect children. It was noticeable that Facebook was the service they mentioned most frequently. Yet aside from cases where bullying spreads through every available outlet, Facebook seems one of the less problematic sites: sure, young kids are on there, but so are their parents and grandparents. The problem with the approach outlined above is that it's not something politicians or campaigners can list as an achievement. Yet if you want to know what upsets children online and what they'd like to be protected from, you really have to ask them, like Andy Phippen does.

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.