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April 26, 2009

Did the telegraph bring peace?

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage presents two quotations (pp. 103-104) prompted by the creation of transatlantic telegraph cables. The first is from Henry Fields:

“It brings the world together. It joins the sundered hemispheres. It unites distant nations, making them feel that they are members of one great family…An ocean cable is not an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic. It is a living, fleshy bond between severed portions of the human family, along which pulses of love and tenderness will run backward and forward forever. By such strong ties does it tend to bind the human race in unity, peace and concord…it seems as if this sea-nymph, rising out of the waves, was born to be the herald of peace.”

The second is unattributed:

“The different nations and races of men will stand, as it were, in the presence of one another. They will know one another better. They will act and react upon each other. They may be moved by common sympathies and swayed by common interests. Thus the electric spark is the true Promethean fire which is to kindle human hearts. Men then will learn that they are brethren, and that it is not less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the world.”

The obvious lessons are, first, that our enthusiasms are sometimes wildly wrong, and, second, that technology by itself doesn’t determine its effect.

And yet I wonder if the tele-utopians were entirely wrong. It is undeniable that the 150 years between the deploying of the telegraph and the rise of the Internet have been unimaginably bloody. So, in that sense, the telegraph heralded the opposite of peace.

That correlation — more communication, more war — certainly means that communication technology doesn’t bring peace. But communication technology may still be an instrument of peace. Peace — IMHO — ultimately comes from understanding that we share a world about which we care differently. The only feasible peace is a noisy peace. We only get there via communication. And I believe that overall communication technology has made us more aware of the unresolvable noisiness of the world. Simple-minded colonialism is no longer in vogue. There is an increasing understanding that no one religion or form of government is going to sweep the table (although those who think it’s their way or the highway to hell are still working their horrors). Our hearts and minds are closer to the conditions of peace than they were before the telegraph, although our governments, religions, and economic systems still have a long way to go.

No, the world is still a mess, and the warriors still tend to rise in power. Yes, communication technology enables armies to deploy on new and vast scales. But also: Peace comes from the recognition of difference that communication makes possible. The tele-utopians were comically wrong, just as are cyber-utopians who think the Net will automatically create peace. But both are also right to rejoice. The threading of the world through communication is the most fundamental condition for a noisy peace, which is the only type of peace possible in a world characterized by difference.

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April 20, 2009

Obama’s common language

Adrienne Redd uses her research into the expectations of nation-states since WWII to analyze the language in Obama’s town hall talk in Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago. She finds evidence of an understanding that the fate of sovereign nations are nonetheless intertwined…

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April 11, 2009

World music

I know I’m late to the PlayForChange.com party, but this is a pretty impressive video, on several grounds. Don’t be misled by the opening; it’s not really just about a street musician.


In a semi-related story, the YouTube orchestra is getting ready to play Carnegie hall. To join, you had to post an audition video on YouTube…

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April 10, 2009

This election brought to you by Starbucks

Well, not exactly. Starbucks is offering a free cup of coffee to everyone who votes in the Indonesian elections. (Via Mong Palatino at GlobalVoices

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April 6, 2009

Ethanz at his best

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post about Paul Simon’s South African collaboration. It’s a long, complex story that Ethan tells with his usual clarity and gusto, but it’s not about Paul Simon so much as about the nature of paths between cultures. The simple is complex because cultures emerge from (and shape) history, and history is everything there is plus some more on top of that.

Few can combine his simultaneous grasp of details, his breadth, and his ability to synthesize context. There’s also his vast heart. Read the post. Only Ethan could have written it.

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March 22, 2009

New blog by old China hand

My old college housemate and good friend Hank Levine has started a blog. He’s was a Foreign Service Office for a long time, and has spent a lot of his life in China, so it’s no surprise that his blog focuseson US-China relations. It’s a bit wonky, but it’s great to hear Hank’s voice.

Hank was the funny one in a pretty funny group. (Funny haha, not so much funny peculiar.) We fell out of touch for about 25 years, but a few weeks ago we video-skyped. He looks distressingly the same. And he’s still funny, although not so much in his blog. Howdy, Hank!

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February 17, 2009

[berkman] Microsoft on the multinational legal complications of cloud computing

Lisa Tanzi, VP & Deputy General Counsel of Microsoft is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “A New Era of Computing: The Opportunities and Challenges of Cloud-Based Software and Services.” [Note: I am live-blogging, thus missing stuff, getting things wrong, writing badly, paraphrasing.] Her division at Microsoft is more on the enterprise side than the consumer side.

Microsoft is very excited about cloud computing (which I’ll abbreviate as CC)) she says. She’s going to give an overview but wants to spend time on the legal implications.

Lisa begins by putting CC into context on the history of computing timeline. Mainframes, PCs, Client/Server and WWW, and Cloud Services. During the CC era, people have multiple devices. Also, we’re seeing touch-based manipulation and other natural user interfaces. And there’s CC, defined as “providing software and computing power over the Internet.” With CC, you can pay as you go, connect all your devices, and provide wider access to “unprecedented computing power.” “But we at Microsoft don’t see it as an either/proposition.” People will want to have a mixed environment.

She goes through the benefits of CC for businesses, government, public sector, and developers. She shows a television ad.

Now she addresses some legal and policy issues. She begins with a scenario: A business launches a conferencing and email services offering. It’s HQ’ed in the US with data centers around the world. This creates jurisdictional issues — privacy, law enforcement, liability, running mixed source, data portability. But, she wants to focus on two sets of issues. First, moving data across borders: privacy, security and law enforcement. If the service provider doesn’t think it can reconcile the conflicting obligations, it may end up not launching the service. Or it might turn features on and off in different jurisdictions, although the software doesn’t always allow that, plus you lose some economies of scale.

“Governments are going to have to work together in new ways to find solutions to these issues,” Lisa says. Also, it may be that governments that figure out how to make it easier data across borders will have an advantage in attracting data centers.

Second, “How do the large bodies of traditional telecom regulations apply in this new world?” VoIP, email, IM are all affected. The laws vary quite a bit by jurisdiction, and they are usually written for different technologies. Law enforcement requirements, confidentiality obligations, emergency services (e.g., E-911) requirements, etc. How you do all this while enabling this new technology to evolve and be rolled out.

When it comes to data movement (her first point), imagine a German company that’s out-sourcing email to a CC provider that has data centers in France and Belgian. The data retention laws of Germany say that info has to be kept for 6 months, in France it’s 1 year, and in Belgium it’s 2. Whose law applies?

Some provincial laws in Canada require data in a CC system to be stored in Canada. But if a US company builds a data center in Canada, the Patriot Act may apply, and even if it doesn’t, exceptionalism is a bad way of doing business.

Q: Have you faced any specific cases where the mother country’s laws regulate or not?
A: A lot of these issues just aren’t resolved. Another real-world example: When we build a data center in another country, we go through an extensive process to make sure that we’re not in a situation of conflicting laws. Researching Japan we came across a statute that says electronic communications cannot be transferred outside of the country. It’s not very clear what that means. Can a subsidiary transfer info out of the country? Is there some new process we should be engaged in? Treaty-like solutions?

Q: Are you required to go to the highest common denominator among all the privacy and retention policies?
A: No clear answers. It looks like you can have a high water mark on privacy. And it gets yet more complicated if you have to deal with privacy based upon whether the person is, not where the data is.

Q: I use MS Word. To get it from my computer, the police have to get a warrant, etc. If I use MS Live, your CC service, the FBI needs a subpoena which means they don’t have to go before a judge and show probable cause. I’m worried that users are naively using online programs such as Google Docs and Office Live without knowing they’re online and that they’re lacking legal protection. What is MS doing to educate users?
A: We hope that it’s apparent to users that they’re storing documents online. The Terms of Use make the legality clear.
Q: No one reads Terms of Use.

Q: From the European perspective, the European Commission in2004 required MS to change its licensing policy. MS didn’t comply. In 2006, MS was fined. In 2008 there was another fine. Interoperability was the common thread. In 2008, another two cases were opened, against Office and Opera. It’s a neverending story. What’s your attitude toward interoperability?
A: We take our legal obligations seriously. We’ve announced interoperability principles. Windows Azure (MS CC) is in development. When it launches, the goal is to have it work with non-MS languages and development environments. It’s built on standard protocols. The entire industry would benefit from data portability.

Q: Users in cloud environments tend not to have much leverage. My non-profit in Zimbabwe just got kicked off its web host because Zimbabwe misunderstood US policy. The customer has no power in this scenario. I worry that for people who are very concerned human rights, data protection, etc., the early indications are that we should run like hell from CC. It’s too bad because technically CC is a much better way to do this. Unless large companies running clouds can offer assurance that they’ll fight for the rights of customers, the response from at least some class of consumers will be “Over my dead body.” Beyond harmonizing, how does this come into issues of free speech. What’s the responsibility of a company like MS to act as a defender of rights?
A: This fall we joined a global initiative to have companies protect privacy and freedom of expression. [Global Network Initiative] For enterprise customers would classify the situation differently. They want to impose obligations on the service provider: set up your physical security in a particular way, do retention in a particular way. For them those issues are being negotiated contract by contract.

Q: What are MS’s financial projections for CC?
A: We haven’t made any [well, made any public]. We’ll be making our business model clear sometime this year. Probably pay as you go.

Q: MS has pushed for a high bar for human rights when it comes to the Global Network Initiative. But CC makes it much harder. What are you going to do?
A: It’s a tough question. We’re working on it.

Q: What type of treaty might MS push for?
A: I was raising that as a discussion point. It’s sooo complex.

Q: Akamai has a similarly distributed architecture and business model. Have you looked at it and other such companies?
A: We have looked at what other companies do.

Q: Why aren’t you using SSL for the entire email session or for MS Office Live for Consumers?
A: I’ll get back to you.

Q: [jpalfrey] We at the Berkman Center pride ourselves on having great relationships and talking straight. From the perspective of users with less money than business and than other users, the value prop for CC is “free or cheap services.” When cheap services have been rolled out to the poor, there have been problems making it clear to users what their risks and rights are. So, as this CC rolls out, MS should have a “mitigation plan” in effect (e.g., signs on construction sites apologizing for the disruption). What would the mitigation plan look like?
A: I’ll take that one back to Redmond. I haven’t spent that much time on the consumer side of this. [Tags: ]

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December 19, 2008

Support GlobalVoices

GlobalVoices needs your help. Need convincing? Check out GV’s bloggage about the Mumbai attack. Or, perhaps more important, check GV any day. The world speaks at GV. Worth a listen. Worth some support. [Disclosure: I’m a volunteer adviser.]

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December 13, 2008

Ethanz on the danger of like loving like

No, Ethan Zuckerman has not come out against same sex marriage. Rather, the Christian Science Monitor has a perfectly wonderful article by Vijaysree Venkatraman about Ethan’s concern that we spend too much time on line reading that which confirms our views and hanging out with people like us. Nice photo of him as well…

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November 27, 2008

Control doesn’t scale

I sometimes put up a Powerpoint (well, Keynote) slide that says “Control doesn’t scale.”The assumption that large projects only succeed if they’re centrally controls led and managed turns out to have been true because we limited the scope of what we we considered realistic. You can build a Britannica using a centrally controlled system, but you could not build a Wikipedia that way.

But I know that there are some important counter-examples, so I’ll frequently add, “Except at an huge cost in expense and freedom,” for we know all too well that some regimes have managed to maintain intense control over massive populations for generations.

Today there’s an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald with Isaac Mao, pioneering Chinese blogger and Berkman fellow, in which he says the Chinese authorities are unable to keep up with increasing volume of social communications the 108M bloggers, millions in social networks, and people texting and twittering away.

So, maybe control doesn’t scale after all.

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