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November 6, 2015

My odd talk on Monday

The Emerson Engagement Lab (of which I am a fan) is having me in for a talk that is apparently open to the public on Monday at 2pm. I’m talking to Paul Mihailidis‘ course in Emerson’s Greene Theater about whether and how we’ve managed to let the Internet become just yet another mass medium or possible the Worst. Mass Medium. Ever. I’ll be talking about why my aging cohort had such high hopes for the Net, how well the Argument from Architecture has held up, and why I am not quite as depressed as most of my friends.

This is an odd talk in part because I’m not using slides or notes. That changes things. For the better? Well, there are reasons why people use slides and why people like me, who only have three remaining neurons devoted to memory, use notes.

Has anyone seen my keys?


Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to talking with Penn State’s Center for Humanities and Information this afternoon. I’m giving a talk about our changing ideas about how the future works, but I believe there will be lots of time for conversation.

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October 31, 2015

What the Internet actually is: A reminder for policy-makers

Just in case you’ve confused the Internet with the entities that bring us access to the Internet or with the machines that instantiate the Internet, here’s an actual goddamn definition:


“The Federal Networking Council (FNC) agrees that the following language reflects our definition of the term “Internet”.

“Internet” refers to the global information system that —

(i) is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons;

(ii) is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and

(iii) provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure described herein.”

This is from a 1995 report by The Federal Networking Council, which is too old even for the Wayback Machine. According to Wikipdia, the FNC was “was chartered by the US National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Computing, Information and Communications (CCIC) to act as a forum for networking collaborations among US federal agencies…” It was dissolved in 1997. But its words are still good.

More than good. The definition quote above comes recommended by a coupla guys who know something about the topic: Robert E. Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf. In their classic article, What is the Internet?, they refer to it as follows:

The authors believe the best definition currently in existence is that approved by the Federal Networking Council in 1995, and which is reproduced in the footnote below [xv] for ready reference.

Keep it ready for reference the next time an access provider complains about regulations as if the access providers are or own the Internet. The Internet is bigger than that. And deeper. And ours.

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June 26, 2015

Too happy to blog

That is all.

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May 19, 2015

John Kerry on the importance of an open-ish Internet

Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Seoul yesterday about the Internet, setting out five principles of cybersecurity.

The talk is quite enthusiastic and progressive about the Net. Sort of. For example, he says, “[t]he United States considers the promotion of an open and secure internet to be a key component of our foreign policy,” but he says this in support of his idea that it’s crucial to govern the Internet. On the third hand, the governance he has in mind is designed to keep the Net open to all people and all ideas. On the fourth hand, predictably, we don’t know how much structural freedom he’s willing to give up to stop the very Worst People on Earth: those who share content they do not own.

Overall, it’s a speech that we can be pretty proud of.

Here’s why he thinks the Net is important:

…to begin with, America believes – as I know you do – that the internet should be open and accessible to everyone. We believe it should be interoperable, so it can connect seamlessly across international borders. We believe people are entitled to the same rights of free expression online as they possess offline. We believe countries should work together to deter and respond effectively to online threats. And we believe digital policy should seek to fulfill the technology’s potential as a vehicle for global stability and sustained economic development; as an innovative way to enhance the transparency of governments and hold governments accountable; and also as a means for social empowerment that is also the most democratic form of public expression ever invented.

At its best, the internet is an equal-opportunity platform from which the voice of a student can have as much reach as that of a billionaire; a chief executive may be able to be out-debated by an entry-level employee – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Great, although why he needed to add a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” is a bit concerning.

He then goes on to say that everyone’s human rights extend to online behavior, which is an important position, although it falls short of Hillary Clinton’s claim while Secretary of State that there is a universal “freedom to connect.”

He then in an odd way absolves the Internet from blame for the disruption it seems to cause:

The internet is, among many other things, an instrument of freedom. It’s a tool people resort to in response to the absence and failure or abuse of government…Anyone who blames the internet for the disorder or turmoil in today’s world is just not using their head to connect the dots correctly. And banning the internet in a misguided attempt to impose order will never succeed in quashing the universal desire for freedom.

This separates him from those who think that the Net actually gives people an idea of freedom, encourages them to speak their minds, or is anything except a passive medium. But that’s fine since in this section he’s explaining why dictators shouldn’t shut down the Net. So we can just keep the “inspires an ambition for political freedom” part quiet for now.

“The remedy for the speech that we do not like is more speech,” he says, always a good trope. But he follows it up with an emphasis on bottom-up conversation, which is refreshing: “It’s the credible voices of real people that must not only be enabled, but they need to be amplified.”

To make the point that the Net empowers all sectors of society, and thus it would be disastrous if it were disrupted globally, he suggests that we watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes me think Secretary Kerry has not watched either version of that movie lately. Klaatu barada nikto, Mr. Kerry.

To enable international commerce, he opposes data localization standards, in the course of which he uses “google” as a verb. Time to up your campaign contributions, Bing.

Kerry pre-announces an international initiative to address the digital divide, “in combination with partner countries, development banks, engineers, and industry leaders.” Details to follow.

Kerry tries to position the NSA’s data collection as an enlightened policy:

Further, unlike many, we have taken steps to respect and safeguard the privacy of the citizens of other countries and to use the information that we do collect solely to address the very specific threat to the United States and to our allies. We don’t use security concerns as an excuse to suppress criticisms of our policies or to give a competitive advantage to an American company and any commercial interests at all.

You have our word on that. So, we’re good? Moving on.

Kerry acknowledges that the Telecomm Act of 1996 is obsolete, noting that “Barely anybody in 1996 was talking about data, and data transformation, and data management. It was all about telephony – the telephone.”

Finally, he gets to governance:

So this brings me to another issue that should concern us all, and that is governance – because even a technology founded on freedom needs rules to be able to flourish and work properly. We understand that. Unlike many models of government that are basically top-down, the internet allows all stakeholders – the private sector, civil society, academics, engineers, and governments – to all have seats at the table. And this multi-stakeholder approach is embodied in a myriad of institutions that each day address internet issues and help digital technology to be able to function.

“Stakeholders” get a “seat at the table”? It’s our goddamned table. And it’s more like a blanket on the ground than polished rare wood in a board room. Here’s an idea for you, World Leaders: How about if you take your stakes and get off our blanket?

Well, that felt good. Back to governing the Internet into the ground. And to be fair, Kerry seems aware of the dangers of top-down control, even if he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of bottom-up self-organization:

That’s why we have to be wary of those who claim that the system is broken or who advocate replacing it with a more centralized arrangement – where governments would have a monopoly on the decision-making. That’s dangerous. Now, I don’t know what you think, but I am confident that if we were to ask any large group of internet users anywhere in the world what their preferences are, the option “leave everything to the government” would be at the absolute bottom of the list.

Kerry now enunciates his five principles.

  1. First, no country should conduct or knowingly support online activity that intentionally damages or impedes the use of another country’s critical infrastructure.

  2. Second, no country should seek either to prevent emergency teams from responding to a cybersecurity incident, or allow its own teams to cause harm.

  3. Third, no country should conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or other confidential business information for commercial gain.

  4. Fourth, every country should mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from its soil, and they should do so in a transparent, accountable and cooperative way.

  5. And fifth, every country should do what it can to help states that are victimized by a cyberattack.

Two particular points:

First, #2 establishes Internet repair teams as the medical support people in the modern battleground: you don’t fire on them.

Second, #3 gets my goat. Earlier in the talk, Sect’y Kerry said: “We understand that freedom of expression is not a license to incite imminent violence. It’s not a license to commit fraud. It’s not a license to indulge in libel, or sexually exploit children.” But the one crime that gets called out in his five principles is violating copyright or patent laws. And it’s not even aimed at other governments doing so, for it explicitly limits the prohibition to acts committed “for commercial gain.” Why the hell is protecting “IP” more important than preventing cross-border libel, doxxing or other privacy violations, organizing human trafficking, or censorship?

Oh, right. Disney. Hollywood. A completely corrupt electoral process. Got it.

Now, it’s easy to be snarky and dismissive about this speech — or any speech — by a Secretary of State about the Internet, but just consider how bad it could have been. Imagine a speech by a Secretary of State in an administration that sees the Internet primarily as a threat to security, to morals, to business as usual. There’s actually a lot to like in this talk, given its assumptions that the Net needs governments to govern it and that it’s ok to spy on everyone so long as we don’t do Bad Things with that information that we gather.

So, before you vote Republican, re-read Hillary Clinton’s two speeches [2010 2011] on Internet freedom.

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May 14, 2015

The Matrix glitches and puts Bruce Schneier next to the head of the NSA

Bruce is one of the most visible, articulate, and smartest voices on behalf of preserving our privacy. (His new book, Data and Goliath, is both very readable and very well documented.) At an event at West Point, he met Admiral Mike Rogers, Director of the NSA. Bruce did an extensive liveblog of the Rogers’ keynote.

There was no visible explosion, forcing physicists to rethink their understanding of matter and anti-matter.


Tim Hwang started a little memefest by suggesting that that photo was announcing a new movie. Contributions by the likes of Tim, Nathan Mathias, Sam Klein, and Ryan Budish include:

  • Security Chasers : The Chastening

  • US Confidential: What you don’t know you don’t know can kill you

  • Selma and Louise: Deep Cover

  • Tango and Hooch: The Spookening

  • Open and Shut: The Legend Begins

  • Phreaky Friday

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September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.


August 15, 2014

From Berkman: Zeynep and Ethanz on the Web We Want

This week there were two out-of-the-park posts by Berkman folk: Ethan Zuckerman on advertising as the Net’s original sin, and Zeynep Tufecki on the power of the open Internet as demonstrated by coverage of the riots in Ferguson. Each provides a view on whether the Net is a failed promise. Each is brilliant and brilliantly written.

Zeynep on Ferguson

Zeynep, who has written with wisdom and insight on the role of social media in the Turkish protests (e.g., here and here), looks at how Twitter brought the Ferguson police riots onto the national agenda and how well Twitter “covered” them. But those events didn’t make a dent in Facebook’s presentation of news. Why? she asks.

Twitter is an open platform where anyone can post whatever they want. It therefore reflects our interests — although no medium is a mere reflection. FB, on the other hand, uses algorithms to determine what it thinks our interests are … except that its algorithms are actually tuned to get us to click more so that FB can show us more ads. (Zeynep made that point about an early and errant draft of my commentary on the FB mood experiment. Thanks, Zeynep!) She uses this to make an important point about the Net’s value as a medium the agenda of which is not set by commercial interests. She talks about this as “Net Neutrality,” extending it from its usual application to the access providers (Comcast, Verizon and their small handful of buddies) to those providing important platforms such as Facebook.

She concludes (but please read it all!):

How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.

And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.

Yup yup yup. This post is required reading for all of the cynics who would impress us with their wake-up-and-smell-the-shitty-coffee pessimism.

Ethan on Ads

Ethan cites a talk by Maciej Ceglowski for the insight that “we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model.” Says Ethan,

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.

Since Internet ads are more effective as a business model than as an actual business, companies are driven ever more frantically to gather customer data in order to hold out the hope of making their ads more effective. And there went out privacy. (This is a very rough paraphrase of Ethan’s argument.)

Ethan pays more than lip service to the benefits — promised and delivered — of the ad-supported Web. But he points to four rather devastating drawbacks, include the distortions caused by algorithmic filtering that Zeynep warns us about. Then he discusses what we can do about it.

I’m not going to try to summarize any further. You need to read this piece. And you will enjoy it. For example, betcha can’t guess who wrote the code for the world’s first pop-up ads. Answer:   Ethan  .

Also recommended: Jeff Jarvis’ response and Mathew Ingram’s response to both. I myself have little hope that advertising can be made significantly better, where “better” means being unreservedly in the interests of “consumers” and sufficiently valuable to the advertisers. I’m of course not confident about this, and maybe tomorrow someone will come up with the solution, but my thinking is based on the assumption that the open Web is always going to be a better way for us to discover what we care about because the native building material of the Web is in fact what we find mutually interesting.


Read both these articles. They are important contributions to understanding the Web We Want.

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July 26, 2014

Municipal nets, municipal electric power, and learning from history

The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.

Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”

Scan of 1906 Moody's

Click image to enlarge

The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.

In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:

First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.

Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.

Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success

Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.

Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.


May 8, 2014

Net Neutrality explained

Here’s a fantastic 11-minute video from Vi Hart that explains Net Neutrality and more.

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March 15, 2014

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Web, not the Internet. It’s important to remember the difference.

I just posted at about why it’s important to remember the difference between the Net and the Web. Here’s the beginning:

A note to NPR and other media that have been reporting on “the 25th anniversary of the Internet”: NO, IT’S NOT. It’s the 25th anniversary of the Web. The Internet is way older than that. And the difference matters.

The Internet is a set of protocols?—?agreements?—?about how information will be sliced up, sent over whatever media the inter-networked networks use, and reassembled when it gets there. The World Wide Web uses the Internet to move information around. The Internet by itself doesn’t know or care about Web pages, browsers, or the hyperlinks we’ve come to love. Rather, the Internet enables things like the World Wide Web, email, Skype, and much much more to be specified and made real. By analogy, the Internet is like an operating system, and the Web, Skype, and email are like applications that run on top of it.

This is not a technical quibble. The difference between the Internet and the Web matters more than ever for at least two reasons.

Continued at

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