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October 25, 2018

The Rochdale hypothesis

Unity_sculpture,_Rochdale_(1).JPGFirst, open a shop. Thus the pioneers of Rochdale, Lancashire, began the process of building their town. Faced with the jobs and loss of income brought by the Industrial Revolution, a group of 28 people, about half of them weavers, designed the set of Rochdale principles, and set about finding £1 each to create a cooperative that sold a few basics. Ten years later, Wikipedia tells us, Britain was home to thousands of imitators: cooperatives became a movement.

Could Rochdale form the template for building a public service internet?

This was the endpoint of a day-long discussion held as part of MozFest and led by a rogue band from the BBC. Not bad, considering that it took us half the day to arrive at three key questions: What is public? What is service? What is internet?


To some extent, the question's phrasing derives from the BBC's remit as a public service broadcaster. "Public service" is the BBC's actual mandate; broadcasting the activity it's usually identified with, is only the means by which it fulfills that mission. There might be - are - other choices. To educate, inform, to entertain, those are its mandate. Neither says radio or TV.

Probably most of the BBC's many global admirers don't realize how broadly the BBC has interpreted that. In the 1980s, it commissioned a computer - the Acorn, which spawned ARM, whose chips today power smartphones - and a series of TV programs to teach the nation about computing. In the early 1990s, it created a dial-up Internet Service Provider to help people get online. Some ten or 15 years ago I contributed to an online guide to the web for an audience with little computer literacy. This kind of thing goes way beyond what most people - for example, Americans - mean by "public broadcasting".

But, as Bill Thompson explained in kicking things off, although 98% of the public has some exposure to the BBC every week, the way people watch TV is changing. Two days later, the Guardian reported that the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, believes the BBC is facing an "existential crisis" because the younger generation watches significantly less television. An eighth of young people "consume no BBC content" in any given week. When everyone can access the best of TV's back catalogue on a growing array of streaming services, and technology giants like Netflix and Amazon are spending billions to achieve worldwide dominance, the BBC must change to find new relevance.

So: the public service Internet might be a solution. Not, as Thompson went on to say, the Internet to make broadcasting better, but the Internet to make *society* better. Few other organizations in the world could adopt such a mission, but it would fit the BBC's particular history.

Few of us are happy with the Internet as it is today. Mozilla's 2018 Internet Health Report catalogues problems: walled gardens, constant surveillance to exploit us by analyzing our data, widespread insecurity, and increasing censorship.

So, again: what does a public service Internet look like? What do people need? How do you avoid the same outcome?

"Code is law," said Thompson, citing Lawrence Lessig's first book. Most people learned from that book that software architecture could determine human behaviour. He took a different lesson: "We built the network, and we can change it. It's just a piece of engineering."

Language, someone said, has its limits when you're moving from rhetoric to tangible service. Canada, they said, renamed the Internet "basic service" - but it changed nothing. "It's still concentrated and expensive."

Also: how far down the stack do we go? Do we rewrite TCP/IP? Throw out the web? Or start from outside and try to blow up capitalism? Who decides?

At this point an important question surfaced: who isn't in the room? (All but about 30 of the world's population, but don't get snippy.) Last week, the Guardian reported that the growth of Internet access is slowing - a lot. UN data to be published next month by the Web Foundation, shows growth dropped from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% in 2017. The report estimates that it will be 2019, two years later than expected, before half the world is online, and large numbers may never get affordable access. Most of the 3.8 billion unconnected are rural poor, largely women, and they are increasingly marginalized.

The Guardian notes that many see no point in access. There's your possible starting point. What would make the Internet valuable to them? What can we help them build that will benefit them and their communities?

Last week, the New York Times suggested that conflicting regulations and norms are dividing the Internet into three: Chinese, European, and American. They're thinking small. Reversing the Internet's increasing concentration and centralization can't be by blowing up the center because it will fight back. But decentralizing by building cooperatively at the edges...that is a perfectly possible future consonant with its past, even we can't really force clumps of hipsters to build infrastructure in former industrial towns, by luring them there with cheap housing prices. Cue Thompson again: he thought of this before, and he can prove it: here's his 2000 manifesto on e-mutualism.

Building public networks in the many parts of Britain where access is a struggle...that sounds like a public service remit to me.

Illustrations: Illustrations: The Unity sculpture, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Rochdale Pioneers (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.

October 18, 2018

Not the new oil

Ada_Lovelace_Chalon_portrait.jpg"Does data age like fish or like wine?" the economist Diane Coyle asked last week. It was one of a long list of questions she suggested researchers need to answer in a presentation at the new Ada Lovelace Institute. More important, the meeting generally asked, how can data best be used to serve the common good? The newly-created Ada Lovelace Institute is being set up to answer this sort of question.

This is a relatively new way of looking at things that has been building up over the last year or two - active rather than passive, social rather than economic, and requiring a different approach from traditional discussions of individual privacy. That might mean stewardship - management as a public good - rather than governance according to legal or quasi-legal rules; and a new paradigm for privacy, which for the last decades has been cast as an individual right rather than a social compact. As we have argued here before, it is long since time to change that last bit, a point made by Ivana Bartoletti, head of the data privacy and data protection practice for GemServ.

One of the key questions for Coyle, as an economist, is how to value data - hence the question about how it ages. In one effort, she tried to get price and volume statistics from cloud providers, and found no agreement on how they thought about their business or how they made the decision to build a new data center. Bytes are the easiest to measure - but that's not how they do it. Some thought about the number of data records, or computations per second, but these measures are insufficient without knowing the content.

"Forget 'the new oil'," she said; the characteristics are too different. Well, that's good news in a sense; if data is not the new oil then we don't have to be dinosaur bones or plankton. But given how many businesses have spent the last 20 years building their plans on the presumption that data *is* the new oil, getting them to change that view will be an uphill slog. Coyle appears willing to try: data, she said, is a public good, non-rivalrous in use, and, like many digital goods, with high fixed but low marginal costs. She went on to say, however, that personal data is not valuable, citing the small price you get if you divide Facebook's profits across its many users.

This is, of course, not really true, any more than you can decide between wine and fish: data's value depends on the beholder, the beholder's purpose, the context, and a host of other variables. The same piece of data may be valueless at times and highly valuable at others. A photograph of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford on that bed in 1982, for example, would have been relatively valueless at the time, and yet be worth a fortune now, whether to suppress or to publish. The economic value might increase as long as it was kept secret - but diminish rapidly once it was made public, while the social value is zero while it's secret but huge if made public. As commodities go, data is weird. Coyle invoked Erwin Schrödinger: you don't know what you've got until you look at it. And even then, you have to keep looking as circumstances change.

That was the opening gambit, but a split rapidly surfaced in the panel, which also included Emma Prest, the executive director of DataKind. Prest and Bartoletti raised issues of consent and ethics, and data turned from a public good into a matter of human rights.

If you're a government or a large company focused on economic growth, then viewing data as a social good means wringing as much profit as you can out of it. That to date has been the direction, leading to amassing giant piles of the stuff and enabling both open and secret trades in surveillance and tracking. One often-proposed response is to apply intellectual property rights; the EU tried something like this in 1996 when it passed the Database Directive, generally unloved today, but this gives organizations rights in databases they compile. It doesn't give individuals property rights over "my" data. As tempting as IP rights might be, one problem is that a lot of data is collaboratively created. "My" medical record is a composite of information I have given doctors and their experience and knowledge-based interpretation. Shouldn't they get an ownership share?

Of course someone - probably a security someone - will be along shortly to point out that ethics, rights, and public goods are not things criminals respect. But this isn't about bad guys. Oil or not, data has always also been a source of power. In that sense, it's heartening to see that so many of these conversations - at the nascent Ada Lovelace Institute, at the St Paul's Institute PDF), at the LSE, and at Data & Society, to name just a few - are taking place. If AI is about data, robotics is at least partly about AI in a mobile substrate. Eventually, these discussions of the shape of the future public sphere will be seen for what they are: debates over the future distribution of power. Don't tell Whitehall.

Illustrations: Ada Lovelace.

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.

October 11, 2018

Lost in transition

End_all_DRM_in_the_world_forever,_within_a_decade.jpg"Why do I have to scan my boarding card?" I demanded loudly of the machine that was making this demand. "I'm buying a thing of milk!"

The location was Heathrow Terminal 5. The "thing of milk" was a pint of milk being purchased with a view to a late arrival in a continental European city where tea is frequently offered with "Kafeesahne", a thick, off-white substance that belongs with tea about as much as library paste does.

A human materialized out of nowhere, and typed in some codes. The transaction went through. I did not know you could do that.

The incident sounds minor - yes, I thanked her - but has a real point. For years, UK airport retailers secured discounts for themselves by demanding to scan boarding cards at the point of purchase while claiming the reason was to exempt the customers from VAT when they are taking purchases out of the country. Just a couple of years ago the news came out: the companies were failing to pass the resulting discounts on to customers and simply pocketing the VAT. Legally, you are not required to comply with the request.

They still ask, of course.

If you're dealing with a human retail clerk, refusing is easy: you say "No" and they move on to completing the transaction. The automated checkout (which I normally avoid), however is not familiar with No. It is not designed for No. No is not part of its vocabulary unless a human comes along with an override code.

My legal right not to scan my boarding card therefore relies on the presence of an expert human. Take the human out of that loop - or overwhelm them with too many stations to monitor - and the right disappears, engineered out by automation and enforced by the time pressure of having to catch a flight and/or the limited resource of your patience.

This is the same issue that has long been machinified by DRM - digital rights management - and the locks it applies to commercially distributed content. The text of Alice in Wonderland is in the public domain, but wrap it in DRM and your legal rights to copy, lend, redistribute, and modify all vanish, automated out with no human to summon and negotiate with.

Another example: the discount railcard I pay for once a year is renewable online. But if you go that route, you are required to upload your passport, photo driver's license, or national ID card. None of these should really be necessary. If you renew at a railway station, you pay your money and get your card, no identification requested. In this example the automation requires you to submit more data and take greater risk than the offline equivalent. And, of course, when you use a website there's no human to waive the requirement and restore the status quo.

Each of these services is designed individually. There is no collusion, and yet the direction is uniform.

Most of the discussion around this kind of thing - rightly - focuses on clearly unjust systems with major impact on people's lives. The COMPAS recidivism algorithm, for example, is used to risk-assess the likelihood that a criminal defendant will reoffend. A ProPublica study found that the algorithm tended to produced biased results of two kinds: first, black defendants were more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly rated as high risk; second, white reoffenders were incorrectly classified as low-risk more often than black ones. Other such systems show similar biases, all for the same basic reason: decades of prejudice are baked into the training data these systems are fed. Virginia Eubanks, for example, has found similar issues in systems such as those that attempt to identify children at risk and that appear to see poverty itself as a risk factor.

By contrast, the instances I'm pointing out seem smaller, maybe even insignificant. But the potential is that over time wide swathes of choices and rights will disappear, essentially automated out of our landscape. Any process can be gamed this way.

At a Royal Society meeting last year, law professor Mireille Hildebrandt outlined the risks of allowing the atrophy of governance through the text-driven law that today is negotiated in the courts. The danger, she warned, is that through machine deployment and "judgemental atrophy" it will be replaced with administration, overseen by inflexible machines that enforce rules with no room for contestability, which Hildebrandt called "the heart of the rule of law".

What's happening here is, as she said, administration - but it's administration in which our legitimate rights dissipate in a wave of "because we can" automated demands. There are many ways we willingly give up these rights already - plenty of people are prepared to give up anonymity in financial transactions by using all manner of non-cash payment systems, for example. But at least those are conscious choices from which we derive a known benefit. It's hard to see any benefit accruing from the loss of the right to object to unreasonable bureaucracy imposed upon us by machines designed to serve only their owners' interests.

Illustrations: "Kill all the DRM in the world within a decade" (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.

October 5, 2018

Once disgusted

"I never vote," said the man across the table. I thought I detected a little smugness.

"Why not?" I asked.

His response was not entirely articulate, but I got the gist: democracy is a con, and voting is making yourself its bitch. So yes, a bit smug. He was above all that. And he probably can afford to be: British, highly educated, skilled, securely employed in Germany.

This is one form of the politics of disgust, but not the worst one. There have always been smug people who believed they were too smart for democracy. Because we pay so much attention to billionaires, there seem to be more of them now. Jeff Bezos, celebrating becoming the world's richest man by musing carelessly on Twitter that all he could think of to spend it on was space travel, is an example. People had to remind him on Twitter that he could contribute socially by paying his warehouse workers better and ensuring his company pays its taxes, At least Bezos did respond by giving $2 billion to fund non-profits working against homelessness and create a network of pre-schools in low-income communities.

Personally, the worst aspect of the politics of disgust has been seeing formerly pleasant and reasonable people transform into fulminating repositories of anger. This was visible in the US at the end stages of the 2016 election, when some lifelong Democrats of my acquaintance were unable to bring themselves to "hold their noses" and vote for Hillary Clinton. It's visible in the UK now in conversations about the EU referendum when friends say "Both sides lied." Saying, "But Leave lied *more*" or "But Leave broke the law" makes no dent. Others can't mention Donald Trump or anyone who works for him without appending an extensive array of Godwin's Law expletives. You could see it, too, on the face of Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) when he ranted at those trying to do due diligence at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. You could also see it - repeatedly - on the face of Kavanaugh himself, though it's hard to tease out which of his grimaces were disgust and which were temper tantrum.

When it's facts that are in dispute minds can be changed with evidence. When emotion overwhelms facts, emotions can be changed, with more difficulty, with interaction and empathy in a slow march back to reason.

Disgust is different. Once disgusted by something, you do not revisit it. Instead, you recoil at the thought - and you go on recoiling as a permanent response. Being asked to reconsider disgust is being asked to take back a bag of rotting garbage, or open all those containers of moldy food at the back of someone else's refrigerator, or pick up the weeks-old decaying rabbit you just found behind a box in the garage. You do it, you hate it, and you stop thinking about it as quickly as possible. From disgust, there is no way back.

And this is the state of our politics, in the US, in the US, and doubtless increasingly elsewhere, too. It is incredibly damaging.

The late, great journalist Molly Ivins frequently noted that people who think politics is irrelevant to them fail to understand how intimately they can be affected by politicians' decisions. (Or, I would now add, they are deluded by wealth and privilege into believing they do not and have never needed anyone else's help.) Women in the US have grasped this intimate connection faster than most groups because issues of access to contraception and abortion are so directly personal. The US right's inability to live and let not-reproduce unfortunately means that reproductive rights have stolen the country's entire focus. Many people began allocating their vote in presidential elections based on Supreme Court futures in the 1980s; now, this habit is percolating into Senate races. The result is that, as an LA Congressman commented earlier this year, the biggest endemic nationwide issues - particularly poverty - are shut out of consideration.

What's worse is that disgust at politicians is being conflated with a more general historical distrust of government, particularly in the western half of the US. People literally do not know what government does for them, so they believe it doesn't matter. In his new book The Fifth Risk Michael Lewis visits the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce to learn what they do and hear the briefings Donald Trump's transition team thought were not worth their time. Lewis finds brilliant, knowledgable people working for mission rather than money to manage nuclear threats, ensure food safety and security, and build the science and data to underpin the nation's economic future. Politicians seize our - and especially the media's - attention because they put on a show. Government proceeds, unnoticed, in the background. As Lewis tells it, today's White House is breaking that all apart, partly through reckless negligence and wilful ignorance, partly through favoritism for commercial interests. Rebuilding will take decades.

This week, as disgust penetrated the politicians themselves at Kavenaugh's Supreme Court nomination hearings, we face the prospect of it spreading to the judiciary. Collaboration and balance are impossible in this destructive atmosphere. As the movie The Candidate asked in 1972, in one of history's top five cinematic endings, "What do we do now?"

Illustrations: Brett Kavanaugh, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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.