" /> net.wars: July 2022 Archives

« June 2022 | Main | August 2022 »

July 29, 2022

On the Internet, they always knew you were a dog

RunJoshRun0106-370.pngThis week: short cuts.

Much excitement that Disney's copyright in the first Mickey Mouse film will expire in...2024. Traditionally, Disney would be lobbying to extend copyright terms - as it did in 1998, when the Copyright Term Extension Act lengthened it to life plus 70 years for authors and 95 years for corporations. In 1928, when Disney released Mickey's first cartoon, copyright lasted 28 years, renewable once. In 1955, Disney duly renewed it until 1984. The 1976 Copyright Act extended that until 2003, and the 1998 law pushed it through 2023. Other companies also profit from these extensions, but Disney is the most notorious.

The losers have been us: the acts froze the public domain for decades. In the interim, as both the Guardian and the Authors Alliance report, Disney has registered trademarks in the character, and even shorn of copyright Mickey remains protected.

The weird reason Disney is unlikely to get another extension *this* time is that the US Republican party is picking a fight with Disney over LGBTQ+ rights. US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) is pushing a copyright term *reduction* bill as a *punishment*. I want to laugh at the bonkersness of this, but can't because: sucks to be the humans whose rights are caught in this crossfire. But yay! public domain.


Airlines do it. Scalpers do it. Even educated algorithms do it. Which is how this week angry Bruce Springsteen fans complained that concert tickets hit $5,500. The reason: Ticketmaster's demand-driven dynamic pricing. Spingsteen's manager, Jon Landau, called the *average* pricing of $200 "fair"; Ticketmaster says only 1% of tickets sold for over $1,000, and 18% sold for under $99.

A Ticketmaster option adjusts pricing to the perceived market. Those first in the queue when sales opened saw four-figure prices; waiting and searching would, NJ.com reports, have found other sites with more modest prices.

In the Internet's early days, many expected it to advantage consumers by making market information transparent. On eBay, this remains somewhat true. Elsewhere, corporate consolidation and automation have eliminated that insight. In the Springsteen case, as your hand hovers on the purchase button you have seconds to decide on the price in front of you. You aren't really paying for Springsteen, you're paying for *certainty*.


The 1998 copyright term extension coincided with the beginnings of the MIT Media Lab's Things That Think, which presaged today's "smart" Internet of Things. Coupling that with the nascent software industry move from purchase to subscription and the history of digital rights management, made limitations on ownership of *things* imaginable.

This week, BMW offered British drivers this exact dystopia: it will charge £10 per month for heated seats for those whose car, when new, didn't include them. Of course that means that all the necessary hardware infrastructure is present in every car, and BMW activates a subscription by toggling a line of code to "true" - an infuriating reason to pay extra.


The shrinking company Meta is unhappy about leap seconds, joining a history of computer industry objections to celestial mechanics. For computer folks, leap seconds pose thorny synchronization problems (see also GPS); for astronomers and physicists, leap seconds crucially align human time with celestial time. When I first wrote about this in 2005, here and at Scientific American, proposals to eliminate them were already on the table at the International Telecommunications Union. That year's vote deferred the decision to its 2015 World Radiocommunications Congress - 2014noted here in 2014 - which duly deferred it again to 2023. Hence the present revival.

Meta is pushing the idea of "smearing" the leap second over 17 hours, which sounds like the kind of magic technology that was supposed to solve the Northern Ireland-Brexit conundrum. Personally, I'm for the astronomers and physicists; as the pandemic, the climate, and the war remind, it's unwise to forget our dependence on the natural world. Prediction: the 2023 meeting will defer it again because the two sides will never agree. Different people need different kinds of time, and that's how it is.


The problem with robots and AIs is that they expect consistency humans rarely provide. This week, a chess-playing robot broke a seven-year-old's finger during a game in the Moscow Chess Open when the boy began his move faster than it was programmed to expect. As Madeline Claire Elish predicted in 2016 in positing moral crumple zones, the tournament organizer seemed to blame the child for not giving the robot enough time. Autonomous vehicle, anyone?


And finally: remaining a meme almost 30 years after its first publication in The New Yorker is Peter Steiner's cartoon of a dog at a computer telling another dog, "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog". It's a wonderful wish-it-were-truth. But it was dubious even in 1993, when most online contacts were strangers who could, theoretically, safely assume fake identities. However, it's hard to lie consistently over a period of time, and even harder to disguise fundamental characteristics that shape life experience. Today's surveillance capitalism would spot the dog immediately - but its canine nature would be obvious anyway from its knee-level world view. On the Internet everyone always knew you were a dog - they just didn't used to care.

Illustrations: US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), running to expand the public domain.

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.

July 22, 2022

Parting gifts

nw-Sunak-Truss-ITV-2022.pngAll national constitutions are written to a threat model that is clearly visible if you compare what they say to how they are put into practice. Ireland, for example, has the same right to freedom of religion embedded in its constitution as the US bill of rights does. Both were reactions to English abuse, yet they chose different remedies. The nascent US's threat model was a power-abusing king, and that focus coupled freedom of religion with a bar on the establishment of a state religion. Although the Founding Fathers were themselves Protestants and likely imagined a US filled with people in their likeness, their threat model was not other beliefs or non-belief but the creation of a supreme superpower derived from merging state and church. In Ireland, for decades, "freedom of religion" meant "freedom to be Catholic". Campaigners for the separation of church and state in 1980s Ireland, when I lived there, advocated fortifying the constitutional guarantee with laws that would make it true in practice for everyone from atheists to evangelical Christians.

England, famously, has no written constitution to scrutinize for such basic principles. Instead, its present Parliamentary system has survived for centuries under a "gentlemen's agreement" - a term of trust that in our modern era transliterates to "the good chaps rule of government". Many feel Boris Johnson has exposed the limitations of this approach. Yet it's not clear that a written constitution would have prevented this: a significant lesson of Donald Trump's US presidency is how many of the systems protecting American democracy rely on "unwritten norms" - the "gentlemen's agreement" under yet another name.

It turns out that tinkering with even an unwritten constitution is tricky. One such attempt took place in 2011, with the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Without the act, a general election must be held at least once every five years, but may be called earlier if the prime minister advises the monarch to do so; they may also be called at any time following a vote of no confidence in the government. Because past prime ministers were felt to have abused their prerogative by timing elections for their political benefit, the act removed it in favor of a set five-year interval unless a no-confidence vote found a two-thirds super-majority. There were general elections in 2010 and 2015 (the first under the act). The next should have been in 2020. Instead...

No one counted on the 2016 vote to leave the EU or David Cameron's next-day resignation. In 2017, Theresa May, trying to negotiate a deal with an increasingly divided Parliament and thinking an election would win her a more workable majority and a mandate, got the necessary super-majority to call a snap election. Her reward was a hung Parliament; she spent the rest of her time in office hamstrung by having to depend on the good will of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party to get anything done. Under the act, the next election should have been 2022. Instead...

In 2019, a Conservative party leadership contest replaced May with Boris Johnson, who, after several failed attempts blocked by opposition MPs determined to stop the most reckless Brexit possibilities, won the necessary two-thirds majority and called a snap election, winning a majority of 80 seats. The next election should be in 2024. Instead...

They repealed the act in March 2022. As we were. Now, Johnson is going, leaving both party and country in disarray. An election in 2023 would be no surprise.

Watching the FTPA in action led me to this conclusion: British democracy is like a live frog. When you pin down one bit of it, as the FTPA did, it throws the rest into distortion and dysfunction. The obvious corollary is that American democracy is a *dead* frog that is being constantly dissected to understand how it works. The disadvantage to a written constitution is that some parts will always age badly. The advantage is clarity of expectations. Yet both systems have enabled someone who does not care about norms to leave behind a generation's worth of continuing damage.

All this is a long preamble to saying that last year's concerns about the direction of the UK's computers-freedom-privacy travel have not abated. In this last week before Parliament rose for the summer, while the contest and the heat saturated the news, Johnson's government introduced the Data Protection and Digital Information bill, which will undermine the rights granted by 25 years of data protection law. The widely disliked Online Safety bill was postponed until September. The final two leadership candidates are, to varying degrees, determined to expunge EU law, revamp the Human Rights act, and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, lawyer Gina Miller warns, the Northern Ireland Protocol bill expands executive power by giving ministers the Henry VIII power to make changes without Parliamentary consent: "This government of Brexiteers are eroding our sovereignty, our constitution, and our ability to hold the government to account."

The British convention is that "government" is collective: the government *are*. Trump wanted to be a king; Johnson wishes to be a president. The coming months will require us to ensure that his replacement knows their place.

Illustrations: Final leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss in debate on ITV.

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.

July 15, 2022

Online harms

boris-johnson-on-his-bike-European-Cycling-Federation-370.jpgAn unexpected bonus of the gradual-then-sudden disappearance of Boris Johnson's government, followed by his own resignation, is that the Online Safety bill is being delayed until after Parliament's September return with a new prime minister and, presumably, cabinet.

This is a bill almost no one likes - child safety campaigners think it doesn't go far enough; digital and human rights campaigners - Big Brother Watch, Article 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group, Liberty, a coalition of 16 organizations (PDF) - because it threatens freedom of expression and privacy while failing to tackle genuine harms such as the platforms' business model; and technical and legal folks because it's largely unworkable.

The DCMS Parliamentary committee sees it as wrongly conceived. The he UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, says it's muzzled and confused. Index on Censorship calls it fundamentally broken, and The Economist says it should be scrapped. The minister whose job it has been to defend it, Nadine Dorries (C-Mid Bedfordshire), remains in place at the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, but her insistence that resigning-in-disgrace Johnson was brought down by a coup probably won't do her any favors in the incoming everything-that-goes-wrong-was-Johnson's-fault era.

In Wednesday's Parliamentary debate on the bill, the most interesting speaker was Kirsty Blackman (SNP-Aberdeen North), whose Internet usage began 30 years ago, when she was younger than her children are now. Among passionate pleas that her children should be protected from some of the high-risk encounters she experienced, was: "Every person, nearly, that I have encountered talking about this bill who's had any say over it, who continues to have any say, doesn't understand how children actually use the Internet." She called this the bill's biggest failing. "They don't understand the massive benefits of the Internet to children."

This point has long been stressed by academic researchers Sonia Livingstone and Andy Phippen, both of whom actually do talk to children. "If the only horse in town is the Online Safety bill, nothing's going to change," Phippen said at last week's Gikii, noting that Dorries' recent cringeworthy TikTok "rap" promoting the bill focused on platform liability. "The liability can't be only on one stakeholder." His suggestion: a multi-pronged harm reduction approach to online safety.

UK politicians have publicly wished to make "Britain the safest place in the world to be online" all the way back to Tony Blair's 1997-2007 government. It's a meaningless phrase. Online safety - however you define "safety" - is like public health; you need it everywhere to have it anywhere.

Along those lines, "Where were the regulators?" Paul Krugman asked in the New York Times this week, as the cryptocurrency crash continues to flow. The cryptocurrency market, which is now down to $1 trillion from its peak of $3 trillion, is recapitulating all the reasons why we regulate the financial sector. Given the ongoing collapses, it may yet fully vaporize. Krugman's take: "It evolved into a sort of postmodern pyramid scheme". The crash, he suggests, may provide the last, best opportunity to regulate it.

The wild rise of "crypto" - and the now-defunct Theranos - was partly fueled by high-trust individuals who boosted the apparent trustworthiness of dubious claims. The same, we learned this week was true of Uber 2014-2017, Based on the Uber files,124,000 documents provided by whistleblower Mark MacGann, a lobbyist for Uber 2014-2016, the Guardian exposes the falsity of Uber's claims that its gig economy jobs were good for drivers.

The most startling story - which transport industry expert Hubert Horan had already published in 2019 - is the news that the company paid academic economists six-figure sums to produce reports it could use to lobby governments to change the laws it disliked. Other things we knew about - for example, Greyball, the company's technology denying regulators and police rides so they couldn't document Uber's regulatory violations and Uber staff's abuse of customer data - are now shown to have been more widely used than we knew. Further appalling behavior, such as that of former CEO Travis Kalanick, who was ousted in 2017, has been thoroughly documented in the 2019 book, Super Pumped, by Mike Isaac, and the 2022 TV series based on it, Super Pumped.

But those scandals - and Thursday/s revelation that 559 passengers are suing the company for failing to protect them from rape and assault by drivers - aren't why Horan described Uber as a regulatory failure in 2019. For years, he has been indefatigably charting Uber's eternal unprofitability. In his latest, he notes that Uber has lost over $20 billion since 2015 while cutting driver compensation by 40%. The company's share price today is less than half its 2019 IPO price of $45 - and a third of its 2021 peak of $60. The "misleading investors" kind of regulatory failure.

So, returning to the Online Safety bill, if you undermine existing rights and increase the large platforms' power by devising requirements that small sites can't meet *and* do nothing to rein in the platforms' underlying business model...the regulatory failure is built in. This pause is a chance to rethink.

Illustrations: Boris Johnson on his bike (European Cyclists Federation 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.

July 8, 2022

Orphan consciousness

icelandverse.pngWhat if, Paul Bernal asked late in this year's Gikii, someone uploaded a consciousness and then we forgot where we got it from? Taking an analogy from copyrighted works whose owners are unknown - orphan works, an orphan consciousness. What rights would it have? Can it commit crimes? Is it murder to erase it? What if it met fellow orphan consciousness and together they created a third? Once it's up there without a link to humanity, then what?

These questions annoyed me less than proposals for robot rights, partly because they're more obviously a thought experiment, and partly because they specifically derived from Greg Daniels' science fiction series Upload, which inspired many of this year's gikii presentations. The gist: Nathan (Robbie Arnell), whose lung is collapsing after an autonomous vehicle crash, is offered two choices: take his chances in the operating room, or have his consciousness uploaded into Lakeview, a corporately owned and run "paradise" where he can enjoy an afterlife in considerable comfort. His girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), begs him to take the afterlife, at her family's expense. As he's rushed into signing the terms and conditions, I briefly expected him to land at the waystation in Albert Brooks' 1991 film Defending Your Life.

Instead, he wakes in a very nice country club hotel where he struggles to find his footing among his fellow uploaded avatars and wrangle the power dynamics in his relationship with Ingrid. What is she willing to fund? What happens if she stops paying? (A Spartan 2GB per day, we find later.) And, as Bernal asked, what are his neurorights?

Fictional use cases, as Gikii proves every year (2021): provide fully-formed use cases through which to explore the developing ethics and laws surrounding emergent technologies. For the current batch - the Digital Markets Act (EU, passed this week), the Digital Services Act (ditto), the Online Safety bill (UK, pending), the Platform Work Directive (proposed, EU), the platform-to-business regulations (in force 2020, EU and UK), and, especially, the AI Act (pending, EU) - Upload couldn't be more on point.

Side note: in-person attendees got to sample the Icelandverse, a metaverse of remarkable physical reality and persistence.

Upload underpinned discussions of deception and consent laws (Burkhard Schäfer and Chloë Kennedy), corporate objectification (Mauricio Figueroa ), and property rights - English law bans perpetual trusts. Can uploads opt out? Can they be murdered? Maybe like copyright, give them death plus 70 years?

Much of this has direct relevance to the "metaverse", which Anna-Maria Piskopani called "just one new way to do surveillance capitalism". The show's perfect example: when sex fails to progress, Ingrid yells out, "Tech support!".

In life, Nora (Andy Allo), the "angel" who arrives to help, works in an open plan corporate dystopia where her co-workers gossip about the avatars they monitor. As in this year's other notable fictional world, Dan Erickson's Severance, the company is always watching, a real pandemic-accelerated trend. In our paper, Andelka Phillips and I noted that although the geofenced chip implanted in Severance's workers prevents their work selves ("innies") from knowing anything about their out-of-hours selves ("outies"), their employer has no such limitation. Modern companies increasingly expect omniscience.

Both series reflect the growing ability of cyber systems to effect change in the physical world. Lachlan Urquhart, Lilian Edwards, and Derek McAuley used the science fiction comedy film Ron's Gone Wrong to examine the effect of errors at scale. The film's damaged robot, Ron, is missing safety features and spreads its settings to its counterparts. Would the AI Act view Ron as high or low risk? It may be a distinction without a difference; MacAuley reminded there will always be failures in the field. "A one-bit change can make changes of orders of magnitude." Then that chip ships by the billion, and can be embedded in millions of devices before it's found. Rinse, repeat, and apply to autonomous vehicles.

In Japan, however, as Naomi Lindvedt explained, the design culture surrounding robots has been far more influenced by the rules written for Astro Boy in 1951 by creator Tezuka Osamu than by Asimov's Laws. These rules are more restrictive and prescriptive, and designers aim to create robots that integrate into society and are user-friendly.

In other quick highlights, Michael Veale noted the Deliveroo ads that show food moving by itself, as if there are no delivery riders, and noted that technology now enforces the exclusivity that used to be contractual, so that drivers never see customer names and contact information, and so can't easily make direct arrangements; Tima Otu Anwana and Paul Eberstaller examined the business relationship between Only Fans and its creators; Sandra Schmitz-Berndt and Paula Contreras showed the difficulty of reporting cyber incidents given the multiple authorities and their inconsistent requirements; Adrian Aronsson-Storrier produced an extraordinary long-lest training video (Super-Betamax!) for a 500-year-old Swedish copyright cult; Helen Oliver discussed attitudes to privacy as revealed by years of UK high school students' entries for a competition to design fictional space stations; and Andy Phippen, based on his many discussions with kids, favors a harm reduction approach to online safety. "If the only horse in town is the Online Safety bill, nothing's going to change."

Illustrations: Image from the Icelandverse (by Inspired by Iceland).

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.

July 1, 2022

Negative externalities

There are plenty of readily available reasons why everything is suddenly so much more expensive: pandemic-blighted supply chains, staff shortages, rising energy prices that push everything else up, the war in Ukraine, monopolistic consolidation that has created a "profits-inflation spiral", per Matt Stoller, and, in the UK, Brexit. But there's another factor also at work: the rising cost of capital.

Throughout the last 15 years of low interest rates, venture capitalists have, by pouring funding into money-losing technology-adjacent companies, been funding what some have called the "millennial lifestyle". I doubt it's limited to millennials; people of all ages have taken advantage of what has been an era of predatory loss-leading pricing intended to undercut the competition until it goes away and they can raise prices.

Amazon did not invent this tactic, but it may have been the first web company to really exploit it. It lost money the first five years it was a public company, and again at other times in its history. Cheap prices were an important part of getting people to use the site; Bezos famously chose its Seattle location to avoid sales taxes on the books it began with. As long ago as 2014, however, people had begun warning that it was now often the more expensive option. And, these days, its search results are full of clutter, ads, "sponsored products", and weird brand names.

I began using Amazon so early in its history that I have an insulated mug the company sent its customers one mid-1990s Christmas. These days, I sometimes go for months at a time without using it.

It's not easy because, as "honest broker" Ted Gioia points out, the long tail Chris Anderson touted in 2004, first in a Wired article and then in a book, doesn't really work. Instead of niche products dominating the market, we continue to have blockbusters and what Gioia calls the "short tail". Companies like Netflix and Amazon, who made their names selling the widest possible range, have since narrowed their offerings. (As Gioia deoesn't say, in its early days Amazon didn't actually have warehouses full of every possible book title; it let the distributor Ingram do that, and sent runners over to collect copies of obscure titles when they were ordered. Now, the long tail is often handled by third-party merchants in its Marketplace.)

As Gioia concludes, the 80/20 rule won and kept winning - which also means that 20 percent of online retailers do 80 percent of the business, and occupy 80 percent of the search listings, and that 20 percent becomes harder and harder to find.

But back to the "millennial lifestyle". "If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you've interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year," Derek Thompson wrote at The Atlantic in 2019 just after the WeWork crash. Thompson went on to predict that WeWork's example was going to make venture capitalists much less willing to finance all that free living in future.

Last week, he published an update, noting that while the combination of spiking energy and labor costs is getting all the headlines, rising prices among the "millennial lifestyle" companies are also part of why life feels so much more expensive for urbanites. Tl;dr: those companies can't afford the subsidy any longer. Rising interest rates surely play a part, too, particularly for a company like Netflix, which used easy access to cheap money to acquire substantial debt with which to finance building its own content library. It didn't have much choice, since it was inevitable that eventually content producers like Disney and the legacy broadcast networks would want to reserve their content for their own streaming services. Now, however, with subscriber numbers under pressure from cost-of-living decisions, its prices are going up and it's adding an advertising-supported tier.

At the New York Times, Kevin Roose reports the same experience as Thompson: "For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets." Today...well, less $16 for an Uber ride across greater Los Angeles, more $250 to get from midtown Manhattan to JFK airport. (Pro tip: there's an express bus from just outside Grand Central station that runs every 30 minutes and gets you there in under an hour for $19.)

The startup extravagance Roose describes - his used car was delivered by a white-gloved valet and adorned with a giant bow - is utterly 1999, when startups recklessly burned through their all-too-easily-raised capital by installing in-office chefs and TGIF bartenders. We know what happened to that: market collapse, followed by more sensible burn rates. WeWork provided a similar, but much crazier, cautionary tale, which Stoller dubbed- counterfeit capitalism.

This approach was never going to be sustainable. So now these services - Stoller lists Bird, Lyft, and Uber (which transport industry expert Hubert Horan notes has lost $31 billion over its lifetime) - are being forced to adopt realistic pricing. In the long run, hopefully it will improve competition and be better for the workers in those industries. For right now, though, it's going to hurt.


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.