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August 30, 2018


GDPR-LATimes.pngThree months after the arrival into force of Europe's General Data Protection Regulation, Nieman Lab finds that more than 1,000 US newspapers are still blocking EU visitors.

"We are engaged on the issue", says the placard that blocks access to even the front pages of the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, both owned by Tronc, as well as the Los Angeles Times, which was owned by Tronc until very recently. Ironically, Wikipedia tells us that the silly-sounding name "Tronc" was derived from "Tribune Online Content"; you'd think a company whoe name includes "online" would grasp the illogic of blocking 500 million literate readers. Nieman Lab also notes that Tronc is for sale, so I guess the company has more urgent problems.

Also apparently unable to cope with remediating its systems, despite years of notice, is Lee Enterprises, which owns numerous newspapers including the Carlisle, PA Sentinel and the Arizona Daily Star; these return "Error 451: Unavailable due to legal reasons", and blame GDPR as the reason "access cannot be granted at this time". Even the giant retail chain Williams-Sonoma has decided GDPR is just too hard, redirecting would-be shoppers to a UK partner site that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Williams-Sonoma - and useless if you want to ship a gift to someone in the US.

If you're reading this in the US, and you want to see what we see, try any of those URLs in a free proxy such as Hide Me, setting set your location to Amsterdam. Fun!

Less humorously, shortly after GDPR came into force a major publisher issued new freelance contracts that shift the liability for violations onto freelances. That is, if I do something that gets the company sued for GDPR violations, in their world I indemnify them.

And then there are the absurd and continuing shenanigans of ICANN, which is supposed to be a global multi-stakeholder modeling a new type of international governance, but seems so unable to shake its American origins that it can't conceive of laws it can't bend to its will.

Years ago, I recall that the New York Times, which now embraces being global, paywalled non-US readers because we were of no interest to their advertisers. For that reason, it seems likely that Tronc and the others see little profit in a European audience. They're struggling already; it may be hard to justify the expenditure on changing their systems for a group of foreign deadbeats. At the same time, though, their subscribers are annoyed that they can't access their home paper while traveling.

On the good news side, the 144 local daily newspapers and hundreds of other publications belonging to GateHouse Media seem to function perfectly well. The most fun was NPR, which briefly offered two alternatives: accept cookies or view in plain text. As someone commented on Twitter, it was like time-traveling back to 1996.

The intended consequence has been to change a lot of data practices. The Reuters Institute finds that the use of third-party cookies is down 22% on European news sites in the three months GDPR has been in force - and 45% on UK news sites. A couple of days after GDPR came into force, web developer Marcel Freinbichler did a US-vs-EU comparison on USA Today: load time dropped from 45 seconds to three, from 124 JavaScript files to zero, and a more than 500 requests to 34.

gdpr-unbalanced-cookingsite.jpgBut many (and not just US sites) are still not getting the message, or are mangling it. For example, numerous sites now display boxes displaying the many types of cookies they use and offering chances to opt in or out. A very few of these are actually well-designed, so you can quickly opt out of whole classes of cookies (advertising, tracking...) and get on with reading whatever you came to the site for. Others are clearly designed to make it as difficult as possible to opt out; these sites want you to visit a half-dozen other sites to set controls. Still others say that if you click the button or continue using the site your consent will be presumed. Another group say here's the policy ("we collect your data"), click to continue, and offer no alternative other than to go away. Not a lawyer - but sites are supposed to obtain explicit consent for collecting data on an opt-in basis, not assume consent on an an opt-out basis while making it onerous to object.

The reality is that it is far, far easier to install ad blockers - such as EFF's Privacy Badger - than to navigate these terrible user interfaces. In six months, I expect to see surveys coming from American site owners saying that most people agree to accept advertising tracking, and what they will mean is that people clicked OK, trusting their ad blockers would protect them.

None of this is what GDPR was meant to do. The intended consequence is to protect citizens and redress the balance of power; exposing exploitative advertising practices and companies' dependence on "surveillance capitalism" is a good thing. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to be taking the view that if they just refuse service the law will go away. That approach hasn't worked since Usenet.

Illustrations: Personally collected screenshots.

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.

August 24, 2018

Cinema surveillant

Dragonfly-Eyes_poster_3-web-460.jpgThe image is so low-resolution that it could be old animation. The walking near-cartoon figure has dark, shoulder-length hair and a shape that suggests: young woman. She? stares at a dark oblong in one hand while wandering ever-closer to a dark area. A swimming pool? A concrete river edge? She wavers away, and briefly it looks like all will be well. Then another change of direction, and in she falls, with a splash.

This scene opens Dragonfly Eyes, which played this week at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. All I knew going in was that the movie had been assembled from fragments of imagery gathered from Chinese surveillance cameras. The scene described above wasn't *quite* the beginning - first, the filmmaker, Chinese artist Xu Bing, provides a preamble explaining that he originally got the idea of telling a story through surveillance camera footage in 2013, but it was only in 2015, when the cameras began streaming live to the cloud, that it became a realistic possibility. There was also, if I remember correctly, a series of random images and noise that in retrospect seem like an orchestra tuning up before launching into the main event, but at the time were rather alarming. Alarming as in, "They're not going to do this for an hour and a half, are they?"

They were not. It was when the cacophony briefly paused to watch a bare-midriffed young woman wriggle suggestively on a chair, pushing down on the top of her jeans (I think) that I first thought, "Hey, did these guys get these people's permission?" A few minutes later, watching the phone?-absorbed woman ambling along the poolside seemed less disturbing, as her back was turned to the camera. Until: after she fell the splashing became fainter and fainter, and after a little while she did not reappear and the water calmed. Did we just watch the recording of a live drowning?

Apparently so. At various times during the rest of the movie we return to a police control room where officers puzzle over that same footage much the way we in the audience were puzzling over Xu's film. Was it suicide? the police ponder while replaying the footage.

Following the plot was sufficiently confusing that I'm grateful that Variety explains it. Ke Fan, an agricultural technician, meets a former Buddhist-in-training, Qing Ting, while they bare both working at a dairy farm and follows her when she moves to a new city. There, she gets fired from her job at a dry cleaner's for failing to be sufficiently servile to an unpleasant, but wealthy and valuable customer. Angered by the situation, Ke Fan repeatedly rams the unpleasant customer's car; this footage is taken from inside the car being rammed, so he appears to be attacking you directly. Three years later, when he gets out of prison, he finds (or possibly just believes he finds) that Qing Ting has had plastic surgery and under a new name is now a singing webcam celebrity who makes her living by soliciting gifts and compliments from her viewers, who turn nasty when she insults a more popular rival...

The characters and narration are voiced by Chinese actors, but the pictures, as one sees from the long list of camera locations and GPS coordinates included in the credits, are taken from 10,000 hours of real-world found imagery, which Xu and his assistants edited down to 81 minutes. Given this patchwork, it's understandably hard to reliably follow the characters through the storyline; the cues we usually rely on - actors and locations that become familiar - simply aren't clear. Some sequences are tagged with the results of image recognition and numbering; very Person of Interest. About a third of the way through, however, the closer analogue that occurred to me is Woody Allen's 1966 movie What's Up, Tiger Lily?, which Allen constructed by marrying the footage from a Japanese spy film to his own unrelated dialogue. It was funny, in 1966.

While Variety calls the storyline "run-of-the-mill melodramatic", in reality the plot is supererogatory. Much more to the point - and indicated in the director's preamble - is that all this real-life surveillance footage can be edited into any "reality" you want. We sort of knew this from reality TV, but the casts of those shows signed up to perform, even if they didn't quite expect the extent to which they'd be exploited. The people captured on Xu's extracts from China's estimated 200 million surveillance cameras, are...just living. The sense of that dissonance never leaves you at any time during the movie.

I can't spoil the movie's ending by telling you whether Ke Fan finds Qing Ting because it matters so little that I don't remember. The important spoiler is this: the filmmaker has managed to obtain permission from 90% of the people who appear in the fragments of footage that make up the film (how he found them would be a fascinating story in itself), and advertises a contact address for the rest to seek him out. In one sense, whew! But then: this is the opt-out, "ask forgiveness, not permission" approach we're so fed up with from Silicon Valley. The fact that Chinese culture is different and the camera streams were accessible via the Internet doesn't make it less disturbing. Yes, that is the point.

Illustrations: Dragonfly Eyes poster.

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.

August 17, 2018


Robber-barons2-bosses-senate.pngOnce upon a nearly-forgotten time, the UK charged for all phone calls via a metered system that added up frighteningly fast when you started dialing up to access the Internet. The upshot was that early Internet services like the now-defunct Demon Internet could charge a modest amount (£10) per month, secure that the consciousness of escalating phone bills would drive subscribers to keep their sessions short. The success of Demon's business model, therefore, depended on the rapaciousness of strangers.

I was reminded of this sort of tradeoff by a discussion in the LA Times (proxied for EU visitors) of cable-cutters. Weary of paying upwards of $100 a month for large bundles of TV channels they never watch, Americans are increasingly dumping them in favor of cheaper streaming subscriptions. As a result, ISPs that depend on TV package revenues are raising their broadband prices to compensate, claiming that the money is needed to pay for infrastructure upgrades. In the absence of network neutrality requirements, those raised prices could well be complemented by throttling competitors' services.

They can do this, of course, because so many areas of the US are lucky if they have two choices of Internet supplier. That minimalist approach to competition means that Americans pay more to access the Internet than many other countries - for slower speeds. It's easy to raise prices when your customers have no choice.

The LA Times holds out hope that technology will save them; that is, the introduction of 5G, which promises better speeds and easier build-out, will enable additional competition from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint - or, writer David Lazarus adds, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In the sense of increasing competition, this may be the good news Lazarus thinks it is, even though he highlights AT&T's and Verizon's past broken promises. I'm less sure: physics dictates that despite its greater convenience the fastest wireless will never be as fast as the fastest wireline.

5G has been an unformed mirage on the horizon for years now, but apparently no longer: CNBC says Verizon's 5G service will begin late this year in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento and give subscribers TV content in the form of an Apple TV and a YouTube subscription. A wireless modem will obviate the need for cabling.

The potential, though, is to entirely reshape competition in both broadband and TV content, a redefinition that began with corporate mergers such as Verizon's acquisition of AOL and Yahoo (now gathered into its subsidiary, "Oath") and AT&T's whole-body swallowing of Time Warner, which includes HBO. Since last year's withdrawal of privacy protections passed during the Obama administration, ISPs have greater latitude to collect and exploit their customers' online data trails. Their expansion into online content makes AT&T and Verizon look more like competitors to the online behemoths. For consumers, greater choice in bandwidth provider is likely to be outweighed by the would-you-like-spam-with-that complete lack of choice about data harvesting. If the competition 5G opens up is provided solely by avid data miners who all impose the same terms and conditions...well, which robber baron would you like to pay?

There's a twist. The key element that's enabled Amazon and, especially, Netflix to succeed in content development is being able to mine the data they collect about their subscribers. Their business models differ - for Amazon, TV content is a loss-leader to sell subscriptions to its premium delivery service; for Netflix, TV production is a bulwark against dependence on third-party content creators and their licensing fees - but both rely on knowing what their customers actually watch. Their ambitions, too, are changing. Amazon has canceled much of its niche programming to chase HBO-style blockbusters, while Netflix is building local content around the world. Meanwhile, AT&T wants HBO to expand worldwide and focus less on its pursuit of prestige; Apple is beginning TV production; and Disney is pulling its content from Netflix to set up its own streaming service.

The idea that many of these companies will be directly competing in all these areas is intriguing, and its impact will be felt outside the US. It hardly matters to someone in London or Siberia how much Internet users in Indianapolis pay for their broadband service or how good it is. But this reconfiguration may well end the last decade's golden age of US TV production, particularly but not solely for drama. All the new streaming services began by mining the back catalogue to build and understand an audience and then using creative freedom to attract talent frustrated by the legacy TV networks' micromanagement of every last detail, a process the veteran screenwriter Ken Levine has compared to being eaten to death by moths.

However, one last factor could provide an impediment to the formation of this landscape: on June 28, California adopted the Consumer Privacy Act, which will come into force in 2020. As Nick Confessore recounts in the New York Times Magazine, this "overnight success" required years of work. Many companies opposed the bill: Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Uber, Comcast, AT&T, Cox, Verizon, and several advertising lobbying groups; Facebook withdrew its initial opposition.. EFF calls it "well-intentioned but flawed", and is proposing changes. ISPs and technology companies also want (somewhat different) changes. EPIC's Mark Rotenberg called the bill's passage a "milestone moment". It could well be.

Illustrations: Robber barons overseeing the US Congress (via Wikimedia).

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.

August 9, 2018


On Wednesday evening, Joanna Geary posted a challenge to all and sundry on Twitter.

To wit:

"OK, choose your own adventure! It is an early summer morning. You wake up to the sound of constant buzzing on your phone. Reading many messages you discover your name has been picked in a compulsory lottery. You are now Lord High Ruler of the Internet. What do you do next?"


Observation: she capitalized "Internet". So nostalgic. We all should, but the Associated Press style book is against us.

I tried answering: "Convene a wise council."

Geary: "You have chosen to convene a wise council. Your first task is to produce a list of names for the council and justify why they are the wisest for the job. Who do you choose?"

Me (muttering, "That should be *whom*"): "Depends. What's the job? And what would *you* do? (Yes, I know it's your game.)"

Geary: "You have chosen to ask host. ... ... Cannot contact the specified host. The host may not be available on the network or to keep consistency this host may not be responding."

Right. I know where I am now. It's a text-based online game. We who came before the generation who grew up on graphical games remember these things from the 1980s, when Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw's MUD launched a genre and Douglas Adams tortured many people with the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a time-sink series of frustrating puzzles. How Geary spent her childhood is now clear.

I reply: "*Go north." In response, she sends me to Canada and repeats: "What do you want to do next?" (She's got me on the wrong continent, but I digress.)

Geary, a former journalist and director of curation at Twitter, is also founder of London's edition of Hacks/Hackers, a gathering that smashes together journalists and computer hackers for mutual benefit.

Geary's main question is the same one everyone has been struggling with ever since 1980-something, when John Connolly reportedly demanded, "Who's in charge?" of a roomful of engineers. Connolly had a right to ask: he was the guy at the National Science Foundation who funded what eventually became the Internet backbone. We're no nearer an answer now.

The history of the Internet is littered with "wise councils" working to solve things for the greater good. In the early days, they were mostly engineers: IETF, ISOC, Jon Postel. It was Postel and his group who allocated the country code domain name registries, deciding to adopt the ISO list to determine whether the UK should be .uk or .gb, for example.

"The IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] is not in the business of deciding what is and is not a country," Postel wrote in RFC 1591 in 1994. "The selection of the ISO 3166 list as a basis for country code top-level domain names was made with the knowledge that ISO has a procedure for determining which entities should be and should not be on that list."

In that statement, Postel, the nearest thing to Geary's Lord High Ruler the Internet has ever had, provided a useful model for Internet governance: he set limits; deferred to established processes and the knowledgeable experts who created them after serious study; and published the reasoning. "RFC", "request for comments", was deliberately chosen for collaboration. Before the big money came in, someone told me at a policy conference circa 1998, anyone pushing a proposal's adoption because it would be good for their company would have been booed off the stage. Today, even the Tim Berners Lee-led W3C struggles to resist corporate influence.

By the mid-1990s, it was clear Internet governance needed more disciplines: civil society, international relations, economists, security practitioners...lawyers. Just one lawyer present when the domain name system was created, Michael Froomkin said at We Robot 2015, could have averted decades of disputes. Postel himself was replaced in 1998 by ICANN, which is currently proving that despite its multistakeholder model it's so resolutely American that it thinks it can cut a deal with GDPR.

In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig argued that there are four means of regulation: market, code/architecture, social norms, and law. The market beloved of libertarians is failing in all sorts of ways, most notably privacy; law struggles to cross international borders; much code has become pwned by the largest Internet companies; and no one can agree on norms.

In a coda, Barlow added, "In the absence of law, ethics and responsibility is [sic] what you have to have." But again: who defines the ethics and the responsibility?

So we are back to Geary's challenge, having eliminated most avenues of approach. Grumpily lifting my crown, I think I would start with access, primarily through municipal and cooperatively built networks. In Cybersalon's unscientific poll at the 2015 Web We Want Festival it was the number one complaint, even in some areas of London. Improving access will continue to enlarge the tranche of existing problems: security, privacy, literacy, education, insufficient competition, network neutrality, centralization, public and private investment, law enforcement, security, protection for democratic processes, moderating toxic human behavior, governance, control, censorship, bullying and intimidation, and technical development. All that will need many wise councils.

But first: let there be light.

Illustrations: Screenshot of Geary's Twitter post.

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.

August 3, 2018

JAQing off

benjaminfranklin-pd.jpgYears ago, when I used to be called in to do various types of discussion TV and radio programs as the token skeptic, a friend said I should turn these invitations down. He had done so himself, on the basis that absent specialists to provide "the other side" of the debate, the programs would drop the item.

I was less sure, because before The Skeptic was founded, those programs did still run - with the opposition provided by a different type of anti-science. Programs featuring mediums and ghost-seers would debate religious representatives who saw these activities and apparitions as evil, but didn't doubt their existence or discuss the psychology of belief. So I thought the more likely outcome was that the programs would run anyway, but be more damaging to the public perception of science.

I did, however, argue (I think in a piece for New Scientist that matters of fact should not be fodder for "debate" on TV. "Balance" was much-misused even in the early 1990s, and I felt that if you defined it as "presenting two opposing points of view" then every space science story would require a quote from the Flat Earth Society. Fortunately, no one has gone that far in demanding "balance". Yet.

Deborah Lipstadt, opened her book Denying the Holocaust with an argument like my friend's. She refuses to grant Holocaust deniers the apparent legitimacy of a platform. This is ultimately an economic question: if the producers want spectacular mysteries, then the skeptic is there partly as a decorative element and partly to absolve the producers of the accusation that they're promoting nonsense. The program runs if you decline. If they want Deborah Lipstadt as their centerpiece, then she is in a position to demand that her fact-based work not be undermined by some jackass presenting "an alternative view".

Maybe that should be JAQass. A couple of weeks ago, Slate ran a piece by AskHistorians subreddit volunteer moderator Johannes Breit. He and his fellow moderators, who sound like they come from the Television without Pity school of moderation, keep AskHistorians high-signal, low-noise by ruthlessly stamping on speculation, abuse, and anything that smacks of denial of established fact. The Holocaust and Nazi Germany are popular topics, so Holocaust denial is a particular target of their efforts.

"Conversation is impossible if one side refuses to acknowledge the basic premise that facts are facts," he writes. And then: "Holocaust denial is a form of political agitation in the service of bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism." For these reasons, he argues that Mark Zuckerberg's announced plan to control anti-Semitic hate speech on Facebook is to remove only postings that advocate violence will not work: In Breit's view, "Any attempt to make Nazism palatable again is a call for violence." Accordingly, the AskHistorians moderators have a zero-tolerance policy even for "just asking questions" - or JAQing, a term I hadn't noticed before - which in their experience is not innocent questioning at all, but deliberate efforts to sow doubt in the audiences' minds.

"Just asking questions" was apparently also Gwyneth Paltrow's excuse for not wanting to comply with Conde Nast's old-fangled rules about fact checking. It appears in HIV denial (that is, early 1990s Sunday Times-style refusal to accept the scientific consensus about the cause of AIDS).

One reason the AskHistorians moderators are so unforgiving, Breit writes, is because it shares a host - Reddit - with myriad other subcommunities that are "notorious for their toxicity". I'd argue this is a feature as well as a bug: AskHistorians' regime would be vastly harder to maintain if there weren't other places where people can blow off steam and vent their favorite anti-matter. As much as I loathe a business that promotes dangerous and unhealthy practices in the name of "wellness", I'm still a free speech advocate - actual free speech, not persecuted-conservative-mythology free speech.

I agree with Breit that Zuckerberg's planned approach for Facebook won't work. But Breit's approach isn't applicable either because of scale: AskHistorians, with a clearly defined mission and real expert commenters, has 37 moderators. I can't begin to guess how many that would translate to for Facebook, where groups are defined but the communities that form around each individual poster are not. That said, if you agree with Breit about the purpose of JAQ, his approach is close to the one I've always favored: distinguishing between content and behavior.

Mostly , we need principles. Without them, we have a patchwork of reactions but no standards to debate. We need not to confuse Google and Facebook with the internet. And we need to think about the readers as well as posters. Finally, we need to understand the tradeoffs. History teaches us a lot about the price of abrogating free speech. The events of the last two years have taught us that our democracies can be undermined by hostile actors turning social media to their own purposes.

My suspicion is that it's the economic incentives underlying these businesses that have to be realigned, and that the solution to today's problems is less about limiting speech than about changing business models to favor meaningful connection rather than "engagement" (aka, outrage). That probably won't be enough by itself, but it's the part of the puzzle that is currently not getting enough attention..

Illustrations: Benjamin Franklin, who said, "Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech."

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.