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March 29, 2019


Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt.jpgA few months ago, Max Reid published an article at New York Magazine commenting that increasingly most of the Internet is fake. He starts with Twitter bots and fake news and winds up contemplating the inauthenticity of self. Fake traffic, automatically-generated content, and advertising fraud are not necessarily lethal. What *is* lethal is the constant nagging doubt about what you're seeing or, as Reid puts it, "the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not 'real' but is also undeniably not 'fake', and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head". It's good not to take everything you read at face value. But the loss of confidence can be poisonous. Navigating that is exhausting.

And it's pervasive. Last weekend, a couple of friends began arguing about whether the epetition to revoke Article 50 was full of fraud. At the time, 40,000 to 50,000 people were signing per hour and the total had just passed 4 million. The petition is hosted on a government site, whose managers have transparently explained their handling of the twin challenges of scale and combating fraud. JJ Patrick's independent analysis concurs: very little bot participation. Even Theresa May defended its validity during Wednesday's Parliamentary debate, even though her government went on to reject it.

Doubt is very easily spread, sometimes correctly. One of the most alarming things about the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes is the discovery that the Federal Aviation Administration is allowing the company to self-certify the safety of its planes. Even if the risk there is only perception, it's incredibly dangerous for an industry that has displayed enormous intelligence in cooperating to make air travel safe.

Another example: last year Nextdoor, a San Francisco-based neighborhood-focused social networking service, sent postcards inviting my area to join Think of it as a corporately-owned chain of community bulletin boards. Across the tracks from me, one street gossips on a private community bulletin board one of them has set up, where I'm told they have animated discussions of their micro issues. By comparison, Nextdoor sounded synthetic; still, I signed up.

Most postings ask for or recommend window cleaners and piano tuners, buildes and babysitters. Yet the site's daily email persistently gives crime and safety the top spot: two guys on a moped peering into car windows reacted aggressively to challenges; car broken into at Tesco; stolen bike; knife attack; police notices. I can't tell if this is how the site promotes "engagement" or whether its origin is deliberate strategy or algorithmic accident. But I do note the rising anxiety among people's responses, and while crime is rising in the UK, likely attributable to police cuts, my neighborhood remains a safer place than Nextdoor suggests...I think. What is certain is that I doubt my neighbors more; you can easily imagine facing their hostile inquisition for being a perfectly innocent hoodie-wearing young male on a moped using a flashlight to look for dropped keys.

Years ago, some of us skeptics considered mounting a hoax - a fake UFO to be found in someone's garden, for example - to chart its progress through the ranks of believers and the media. In the end, we decided it was a bad idea, because such things never die, and then you have to spend the rest of your life debunking them. There are plenty of examples; David Langford's UFO hoax, published as an account found in his attic and written by William Robert Loosley still circulates as true, goosed since then by a mention in a best-selling book by Whitley Strieber. As the Internet now proves every day, once a false story is embedded, you can never fully dig it out again. Worse, even when you don't believe it, repeated encounters can provoke doubt despite yourself.

Andrew Wakefield is a fine case in point. Years after the British Medical Journal retracted his paper and called it a hoax, the damage continues to escalate. Recently, the World Health Organization called vaccine hesitancy is a top-ten threat to health worldwide. Hesitancy is right. I am an oddity in having been born in 1954 but having somehow escaped all the childhood diseases. "You probably just don't remember you had them," the nurse said when I inquired about getting the MMR, now that every week you read of a measles outbreak somewhere. True, I *don't* remember having them. But I *do* remember, clearly, my mother asking me, "Were you *close* to them?" every time the note came home from school that another kid had one of them. We made an appointment for the shot.

I then realized that years of exposure to anti-vaccination arguments have had their effect. Hundreds of millions of people have had these vaccines with little to no ill-effects, and yet: what if? How stupid would I feel if I broke my own health? "It's just fear of illness," someone carped on Twitter, trying to convince me that vaccines were not safety-tested and only a fool would get one. Well, yes, and some illnesses *should* be feared, particularly as you age.

"I know," the nurse said, when I commented that spreading doubt has been a terrible effect of all this. She pushed the plunger. Two days later, a friend living in north London emailed: she has mumps. It feels like I had a close call.

Illustrations: Philip Seymour Hoffman in John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT.

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.

March 22, 2019

Layer nine

nemeth-osi-9layer-tshirt.jpgIs it possible to regulate the internet without killing it?

Before you can answer that you have to answer this: what constitutes killing the Internet? The Internet Society has a sort of answer, which is a list of what it calls Internet invariants, a useful phrase that is less attackable as "solutionism" by Evgeny Morozov than alternatives that portray the Internet as if it were a force of nature instead of human-designed and human-made.

Few people watching video on their phones on the Underground care about this, but networking specialists view the Internet as a set of layers. I don't know the whole story, but in the 1980s researchers, particularly in Europe, put a lot of work into conceptualizing a seven-layer networking model, Open Systems Interconnection. By 1991, however, a company CEO told me, "I don't know why we need it. TCP/IP is here now. Why can't we just use that?" TCP/IP are the Internet protocols, so that conversation showed the future. However, people still use the concepts OSI built. The bottom, physical layers, are the province of ISPs and telcos. The ones the Internet Society is concerned about are the ones concerning infrastructure and protocols - the middle layers. Layer 7, "Application", is all the things users see - and politicians fight over.

We are at a layer the OSI model failed to recognize, identified by the engineer Evi Nemeth. We - digital and human rights activists, regulators, policy makers, social scientists, net.wars readers - are at layer 9.

So the question we started with might also be phrased, "Is it possible to regulate the application layer while leaving the underlying infrastructure undamaged?" Put like that, it feels like it ought to be. Yet aspects of Internet regulation definitely entangle downwards. Most are surveillance-related, such as the US requirement that ISPs enable interception and data retention. Emerging demands for localized data storage and the General Data Protection Regulation also may penetrate more deeply while raising issues of extraterritorial jurisdiction. GDPR seeds itself into other countries like the stowaway recursive clause of the GNU General Public License for software: both require their application to onward derivatives. Localized data storage demands blocks and firewalls instead of openness.

Twenty years ago, you could make this pitch to policy makers: if you break the openness of the Internet by requiring a license to start an online business, or implementing a firewall, or limiting what people can say and do, you will be excluded form the Internet's economic and social benefits. Since then, China has proved that a national intranet can still fuel big businesses. Meanwhile, the retail sector craters and a new Facebook malfeasance surfaces near-daily, the policy maker might respond that the FAANG- Fab Five pay far less in tax than the companies they've put out of business, employment precarity is increasing, and the FAANGs wield disproportionate power while enabling abusive behavior and the spread of extremism and violence. We had open innovation and this is what it brought us.

To old-timers this is all kinds of confusion. As I said recently on Twitter, it's subsets all the way down: Facebook is a site on the web, and the web is an application that runs on the Internet. They are not equivalents. Here. In countries where Facebook's Free Basics is zero-rated, the two are functionally equivalent.

Somewhere in the midst of a discussion yesterday about all this, it was interesting to consider airline safety. That industry understood very early that safety was crucial to its success. Within 20 years of the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, the nascent industry was lobbying the US Congress for regulation; the first airline safety bill passed in 1926. If the airline industry had instead been founded by the sort of libertarians who have dominated large parts of Internet development...well, the old joke about the exchange between General Motors and Bill Gates applies. The computer industry has gotten away with refusing responsibility for 40 years because they do not believe we'll ever stop buying their products, and we let it.

There's a lot to say about the threat of regulatory capture even in two highly regulated industries, medicine and air travel, and maybe we'll say it here one week soon, but the overall point is that outside of the open source community, most stakeholders in today's Internet lack the kind of overarching common goal that continues to lead airlines and airplane manufacturers to collaborate on safety despite also being fierce competitors. The computer industry, by contrast, has spent the last 50 years mocking government for being too slow to keep up with technological change while actively refusing to accept any product liability for software.

In our present context, the "Internet invariants" seem almost quaint. Yet I hope the Internet Society succeeds in protecting the Internet's openness because I don't believe our present situation means that the open Internet has failed. Instead, the toxic combination of neoliberalism, techno-arrogance, and the refusal of responsibility (by many industries - just today, see pharma and oil) has undermined the social compact the open Internet reflected. Regulation is not the enemy. *Badly-conceived* regulation is. So the question of what good regulation looks like is crucial.

Illustrations: Evi Nemeth's adapted OSI model, seen here on a T-shirt historically sold by the Internet Systems Consortium.

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.

March 15, 2019

Schrödinger's Brexit


"What's it like over there now?" American friends keep asking as the clock ticks down to midnight on March 29. Even American TV seems unusually interested: last week's Full Frontal with Samantha Bee had Amy Hoggart explain in detail; John Oliver made it a centerpiece two weeks ago, and US news outlets are giving it as much attention as if it were a US story. They're even - so cute! - trying to pronounce "Taoiseach". Everyone seems fascinated by the spectacle of the supposedly stoic, intellectual British holding meaningless "meaningful" votes and avoiding making any decisions that could cause anyone to lose face. So this is what it's like to live through a future line in the history books: other countries fret on your behalf while you're trying to get lunch.

In 14 days, Britain will either still be a member of the European or it won't. It will have a deal describing the future relationship or it won't. Ireland will be rediscovering civil war or it won't. In two months, we will be voting in the European Parliamentary elections as if nothing has happened, or we won't. All possible outcomes lead to protests in Parliament Square.

No one expects to be like Venezuela. But no one knows what will happen, either. We were more confident approaching Y2K. At least then you knew that thousands of people had put years of hard work into remediating the most important software that could fail. Here...in January, returning from CPDP and flowing seamlessly via Eurostar from Brussels to London, my exit into St Pancras station held the question: is this the last time this journey will be so simple? Next trip, will there be Customs channels and visa checks? Where will they put them? There's no space.

A lot of the rhetoric both at the time of the 2016 vote and since has been around taking back control and sovereignty. That's not the Britain I remember from the 1970s, when the sense of a country recovering from the loss of its empire was palpable, middle class people had pay-as-you-go electric and gas meters, and the owner of a Glasgow fruit and vegetable shop stared at me when I asked for fresh garlic. In 1974, a British friend visiting an ordinary US town remarked, "You can tell there's a lot more money around in this country." And another, newly expatriate and struggling: "But at least we're eating real meat here." This is the pre-EU Britain I remember.

"I've worked for them, and I know how corrupt they are," a 70-something computer scientist said to me of the EU recently. She would, she said, "man the barriers" if withdrawal did not go through. We got interrupted before I could ask if she thought we were safer in the hands of the Parliament whose incompetence she had also just furiously condemned.

The country remains profoundly in disagreement. There may be as many definitions of "Brexit" as there are Leave voters. But the last three years have brought everyone together on one thing: no matter how they voted, where they're from, which party they support, or where they get their news, everyone thinks the political class has disgraced itself. Casually-met strangers laugh in disbelief at MPs' inability to put country before party or self-interest or say things like "It's sickening". Even Wednesday's hair's width vote taking No Deal off the table is absurd: the clock inexorably ticks toward exiting the EU with nothing unless someone takes positive action, either by revoking Article 50, or by asking for an extension, or by signing a deal. But action can get you killed politically. I've never cared for Theresa May, but she's prime minister because no one else was willing to take this on.

NB for the confused: in the UK "tabling a motion" means to put it up for discussion; in the US it means to drop it.

Quietly, people are making just-in-case preparations. One friend scheduled a doctor's appointment to ensure that he'd have in hand six months' worth of the medications he depends on. Others stockpile EU-sourced food items that may be scarce or massively more expensive. Anyone who can is applying for a passport from an EU country; many friends are scrambling to research their Irish grandparents and assemble documentation. So the people in the best position are the recent descendants of immigrants that would would not now be welcome. It is unfair and ironic, and everyone knows it. A critical underlying issue, Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson write in their excellent and eye-opening Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire is education that stresses the UK's "glorious" imperial past. Within the EU, they write, UK MEPs are most of the extreme right, and the EU may be better off - more moderate, less prone to populism - without the UK, while British people may achieve a better understanding of their undistinguished place in the world. Ouch.

The EU has never seemed irrelevant to digital rights activists. Computers, freedom, and privacy (that is, "net.wars") shows the importance of the EU in our time, when the US refuses to regulate and the Internet is challenging national jurisdiction. International collaboration matters.

Just as I wrote that, Parliament finally voted to take the smallest possible action and ask the EU for a two-month extension. Schrödinger needs a bigger box.

Illustrations: "Big Ben" (Aldaron, 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.

March 8, 2019


parliament-whereszuck.jpgWould you buy a used social media platform from this man?

"As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platform," Mark Zuckerberg wrote this week at the Facebook blog, also summarized at the Guardian.

Zuckerberg goes on to compare Facebook and Instagram to "the digital equivalent of a town square".

So many errors, so little time. Neither Facebook nor Instagram is open. "Open information, Rufus Pollock explained last year in The Open Revolution, "...can be universally and freely used, built upon, and shared." While, "In a Closed world information is exclusively 'owned' and controlled, its attendant wealth and power more and more concentrated".

The alphabet is open. I do not need a license from the Oxford English Dictionary to form words. The web is open (because Tim Berners-Lee made it so). One of the first social media, Usenet, is open. Particularly in the early 1990s, Usenet really was the Internet's town square.

*Facebook* is *closed*.

Sure, anyone can post - but only in the ways that Facebook permits. Running apps requires Facebook's authorization, and if Facebook makes changes, SOL. Had Zuckerberg said - as some have paraphrased him - "town hall", he'd still be wrong, but less so: even smaller town halls have metal detectors and guards to control what happens inside. However, they're publicly owned. Under the structure Zuckerberg devised when it went public, even the shareholders have little control over Facebook's business decisions.

So, now: this week Zuckerberg announced a seeming change of direction for the service. Slate, the Guardian, and the Washington Post all find skepticism among privacy advocates that Facebook can change in any fundamental way, and they wonder about the impact on Facebook's business model of the shift to focusing on secure private messaging instead of the more public newsfeed. Facebook's former chief security officer Alex Stamos calls the announcement a "judo move" that removes both the privacy complaints (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends) and allows the site to say that complaints about circulating fake news and terrorist content are outside its control (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends *and* doesn't keep the data).

But here's the thing. Facebook is still proposing to unify the WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook user databases. Zuckerberg's stated intention is to build a single unified secure messaging system. In fact, as Alex Hern writes at the Guardian that's the one concrete action Zuckerberg has committed to, and that was announced back in January, to immediate privacy queries from the EU.

The point that can' t be stressed enough is that although Facebook is trading away the ability to look at the content of what people post it will retain oversight of all the traffic data. We have known for decades that metadata is even more revealing than content; I remember the late Caspar Bowden explaining the issues in detail in 1999. Even if Facebook's promise to vape the messages doesn't include keeping no copies for itself (a stretch, given that we found out in 2013 that the company keeps every character you type), it will be able to keep its insights into the connections between people and the conclusions it draws from them. Or, as Hern also writes, Zuckerberg "is offering privacy on Facebook, but not necessarily privacy from Facebook".

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media, seems to be the first to get this, and to point out that Facebook's supposed "pivot" is really just a decision to become more dominant, like China's WeChat.WeChat thoroughly dominates Chinese life: it provides messaging, payments, and a de facto identity system. This is where Vaidhyanathan believes Facebook wants to go, and if encrypting messages means it can't compete in China...well, WeChat already owns that market anyway. Let Google get the bad press.

Facebook is making a tradeoff. The merged database will give it the ability to inspect redundancy - are these two people connected on all three services or just one? - and therefore far greater certainty about which contacts really matter and to whom. The social graph that emerges from this exercise will be smaller because duplicates will have been merged, but far more accurate. The "pivot" does, however, look like it might enable Facebook to wriggle out from under some of its numerous problems - uh, "challenges". The calls for regulation and content moderation focus on the newsfeed. "We have no way to see the content people write privately to each other" ends both discussions, quite possibly along with any liability Facebook might have if the EU's copyright reform package passes with Article 11 (the "link tax") intact.

Even calls that the company should be broken up - appropriate enough, since the EU only approved Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp when the company swore that merging the two databases was technically impossible - may founder against a unified database. Plus, as we know from this week's revelations, the politicians calling for regulation depend on it for re-election, and in private they accommodate it, as Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell write at the Guardian and Bill Goodwin writes at Computer Weekly.

Overall, then, no real change.

Illustrations: The international Parliamentary committee, with Mark Zuckerberg's empty seat.

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.