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July 17, 2017

The Internet is also a thing

A list I am on is counseling that a particular writer not to be taken in by a tour of a data center or network operations center. These tours are typically given by PR guides and can leave the impression that the Internet is a set of writes owned by a corporation.

I certainly agree with both concerns. But, having been a Rube on a Tour more than once, I think technologists who are deep into protocol issues may underestimate how shocking it is to most people that the Internet is also a physical thing. Yes, I understand that the Internet is a set of protocols, etc., and I understand that that is usually what we need to communicate to people in order to counter the truly pernicious belief that Comcast et al. own the Internet. But the Internet is also, as instantiated, a set of coiled wires and massive industrial installations. Seeing the blinking lights on a bank of routers and being told by the PR Tour Guide that those signify packets going somewhere is, well, thrilling.

Every Internet user understands that there is a physical side of the Net. But seeing it in person is awesome and inspiring. That’s why Shuli Hallak‘s photos in Invisible Networks are so impressive.

It is tremendously important both conceptually and politically to understand that the Net is fundamentally not a thing and is not owned by anyone. But seeing in person the magnitude of the effort and the magnificence of the hardware engineering also teaches an important lesson: the Internet is not magic. At least not entirely.

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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 Medium.com 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 Medium.com

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May 31, 2013

An Internet cathedral?

It took six centuries to complete the incredible Duomo in Milan. In the past fifteen years, we’ve built some amazing things on the Net by using the Net’s ability to scale laterally: Lots of people collaborating for a short period of time.

08372 - Milan - Duomo
(cc) xiquinho @ flickr.com

So, imagine we set out to do something with a longer time frame. What could we build together if we gave ourselves say 100 years?

I’ve posed this at Reddit.

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November 12, 2011

Italian Pirate Party to launch today?

While the Pirate Party already has an association in Italy, it seems likely that this afternoon it is going to register as an official party. That’s an exciting and encouraging step.

I of course don’t know what its platform will be, but if it’s similar to that of the other Pirate Parties, then I won’t agree with all of it, but will still welcome its presence as a voice not only for an open Internet — far wider than copyright reform — but for the set of values an open Internet permits: new forms of collaboration, lowering the hurdles to expression, bold experimentation and its concurrent willingness to fail, transparency, and joy in the new possibilities.

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August 23, 2011

The unframed Net

It’s clear that we don’t know how to explain the Internet. Is it a medium? Is it a culture, a subworld, or a parallel world? Is it a communication system? We bounce around, and we disagree.

Nevertheless, I am not as worried about our lacking the right framing for the Net as are some of my friends and colleagues.

For one thing, the same refusal to be pinned down characterizes everything. What something _is_ depends on what we’re trying to do with it, even within a culturally/linguistically homogeneous group. You can try this exercise with anything from terrorism to television to candy bars. (To pin myself down about why I think we can’t pin things down: I am sort of a phenomenological pragmatist. I also think that everything is miscellaneous, but that’s just me.)

So, we assimilate the Internet to existing concepts. There is nothing slovenly or cowardly about this. It’s how we understand things.

So, why does the Net seem special to us? Why does it seem to bust our frames ‘n’ paradigms? After all, we could assimilate the Net into older paradigms, because it is a series of tubes, and it is a communications medium, and it is a way of delivering content. Not only could we assimilate it, there are tremendous pressures to do so.

But for pragmatic (and Pragmatic) reasons, some of us (me included) don’t want to let that happen. It would foreclose cultural and political consequences we yearn for — the “we” that has flocked to the Net and that loves it for what it is and could be. The Net busts frames because it serves our purposes to have it do so.

This is why I find myself continuing to push Internet Exceptionalism, even though it does at times make me look foolish. Internet Exceptionalism is not an irrational exuberance. It is a political position. More exactly, it is a political yearning.

That’s why I’m not much bothered by the fact that we don’t have a new frame for the Net: frames are always inadequate, and the frame-busting nature of the Net serves our purposes.

In that sense, the way to frame the Internet is to keep insisting that the Net does not fit well into the old frame. Those of us who love the Net need to keep hammering on the fact that the old frames are inadequate, that the Net is exceptional, not yet assimilated to understanding, still to be invented, open to possibility, liberating of human and social potential, a framework for hope.

Eventually we’ll have the new frame for the Internet. It will be, I will boldly predict, the Internet :) In fact, open networks already are the new frame, and are sweeping aside old ways of thinking. Everything is a network.

The Internet will transition quickly from un-frameable to becoming the new frame. Until then, we should (imo) embrace the un-frameability of the Net as its framing.

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August 18, 2011

Internet, freedom, and the tools of circumvention

Three new reports have come out of the Berkman Center:

The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Rob Faris, Jillian York, and John Palfrey

This paper summarizes the results of the studies we have undertaken in order to better understand the control of the Internet in less open societies. It provides an overview of our research in the context recent changes in the methods used to control online speech, and some thoughts on the challenges to online speech in the immediate future.

International Bloggers and Internet Control
by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Jillian York, Rob Faris, and John Palfrey

Infringements on Internet freedom, particularly through Internet filtering and surveillance, have inspired activists and technologists to develop technological counter-measures, most notably circumvention tools to defeat Internet filters and anonymity tools to help protect user privacy and avoid online surveillance efforts. However, despite the perceived importance of this field, relatively little is known about the demand for and usage patterns of these tools. In December 2010, we surveyed a sample of international bloggers to better understand how, where, why, and by whom these tools are being used.

Circumvention Tool Evaluation

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, and John Palfrey

This paper evaluates 19 circumvention tools tested in five countries. In this report, we focus on questions of utility—the ability for a tool to be installed and used in a particular location, and the accuracy and speed of the tool. Additionally, we address concerns about security, usability and openness when appropriate.

Drawing on background research, meetings with tool developers, consultations with experts, interviews with users, structured surveys, and technical evaluations, these publications help improve our overall understanding of the role of circumvention tools in promoting greater Internet openness.

We are grateful for the participation of Global Voices Online and for the work of those who translated our blogger survey into more than a dozen languages. We offer our special thanks to the bloggers that participated in the survey.

For more information about the Berkman Center’s research on circumvention, including links to these and other reports, please visit: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/research/circumvention

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January 21, 2011

Two of the Internet’s parents explain its origins and future

Scott Bradner and Steve Crocker are two of the tech geniuses who built the Internet in an open way and built it to be open. Now they have both published instructive columns recounting the thinking behind the Net that has been responsible for its success . I highly recommend both.

From Scott‘s:

The IETF has interpreted the “End to End” paper to basically say that
the network should not be application aware. Unless told otherwise by
an application, the network should treat all Internet traffic the
same.

…this design philosophy has led the IETF to create
technologies that can be deployed without having to get permission
from network operators or having to modify the networks.

…Last year I was worried about what rules regulators and politicians
were going to impose on the Internet. This year, my pessimism is
focused at a lower level in the protocol stack: I’m worried about what
kind of network the network operators will provide for the IETF to
build on, for me and you to use, and for tomorrow’s enterprises to
depend on.

From Steve‘s:

…we always tried to design each new protocol to be
both useful in its own right and a building block available to others.
We did not think of protocols as finished products, and we
deliberately exposed the internal architecture to make it easy for
others to gain a foothold. This was the antithesis of the attitude of
the old telephone networks, which actively discouraged any additions
or uses they had not sanctioned.

As we rebuild our economy, I do hope we keep in mind the value of
openness, especially in industries that have rarely had it. Whether
it’s in health care reform or energy innovation, the largest payoffs
will come not from what the stimulus package pays for directly, but
from the huge vistas we open up for others to explore.

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July 10, 2009

Internet freedom, but not equality

From the National Journal:

Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., secured $30 million in federal funding for the State Department’s efforts to promote Internet freedom as part of the agency’s fiscal year 2010 spending bill. The program must be approved by the full Senate and the House before it makes its way to President Obama’s desk. The money would promote widespread, secure Internet use by individuals residing in countries practicing repressive Internet monitoring, censorship and control. The outlay is “a low-cost method of allowing people, especially those living under repressive regimes, to access all-source, uncensored, unfiltered information,” the senators said in a Friday press release.

“Tearing down these Internet cyberwalls can match the effect of what happened when the Berlin Wall was torn down,” Specter said. “This funding seeks to enable freedom of thought, expression and the unimpeded flow of ideas and information, and I am pleased my colleagues have recognized the program’s importance.” Brownback added the battle being waged in the streets of Iran and China is also being fought on micro-blogging site Twitter, social network Facebook and other platforms. “This is a pivotal moment for people living in oppressive regimes. The best way to ensure their ability to communicate and share their story with each other and the world is to keep the Internet open,” he said.

The House passed a State spending bill Thursday that did not include Web freedom funding but Energy and Commerce Committee member Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., earlier this week urged lawmakers to hold a hearing on the role of the Internet in giving a voice to those in repressive countries. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who in the 109th Congress chaired a high-profile Internet freedom hearing of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights, has repeatedly introduced legislation that would prevent U.S. tech firms from working with nations that capture and convict citizens for engaging in democracy promotion and human rights advocacy online.

The NY Times reports on danah boyd’s kick-butt keynote at PDF09, in which she pointed to the class divisions in the Net:

Is the social-media revolution bringing us together? Or is it perpetuating divisions by race and class?

Many of us would like to believe the Internet is a force for unity, but danah boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, thinks we’re deceiving ourselves.

Speaking last week at the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that explores how technology is changing politics, Ms. boyd asked a packed audience of activists, political operatives, entrepreneurs and journalists to raise their hands if they use Facebook. Almost every hand in the place went up. Then she asked who uses MySpace, and barely a hand was seen.

How could that be? Sure, Facebook is growing much faster. But MySpace is far from dead. In May, Web-traffic tracker comScore reported that Facebook and MySpace are neck and neck in terms of U.S. visitors, with 70.28 million that month for Facebook, up 97% from a year ago, and 70.26 million for MySpace, down 5% from last year.

vMs. boyd got some answers from group of people she’s been hanging out with over the last four years: U.S. teens. During the 2006-2007 school year, her conversations with high-school students began showing a trend of white, upper-class and college-bound teens migrating to Facebook–much like the crowd in the conference hall has. Meanwhile, less-educated and non-white teens were on MySpace. Ms. boyd noted that old-style class arrogance was also in view; the Facebook kids were quicker to use condescending language toward the MySpace kids.

“What we’re seeing is a modern incarnation of white flight,” Ms. boyd said. “It should scare the hell out of us.”

More in the article, including research by Eszter Hargittai… [Tags: ]

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June 7, 2009

Broadband isn’t the Internet

Here’s a comment aimed at the FCC that reminds the FCC that (a) broadband and the Internet are not really synonymous, (b) the value of broadband is that it gives access to the Internet, so, (c) when designing a national broadband package, we should make sure that it supports the value of the Internet.

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April 28, 2009

[berkman] Russ Neuman

W. Russell Neuman is giving a Berkman talked called “Theories of Media Evolution.” He wants to think about the effect of the Internet in the context of the history of other media and the difference they’ve made. (The book “Theories of Media Evolution” will be out this fall.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.


There are four classic dismissive argumenst about the Internet: 1. It’s just another communication tech. 2. Human psychology doesn’t change. (Russ thinks we should take that seriously.) 3. “Just you wait.” “The iron laws of political economy just aren’t going to change.” 4. If you say the Net will make a difference, you are a naive techno-determinist.


Russ says his current research was inspired by his own mentor, Ithiel de Sola Pool. The volume of communication is growing exponentially. His conclusion: The volume of info changes the media from push to pull.


He shows a famous graph of volumes and cost in communication, 1960-1977. Volume goes up and cost goes down exponentially. Russ has done a new study, 1980-2005, studying the number of words per medium per day going into the average American home. How many newspapers, how many words in each, etc. Russ looked at 12 traditional media and the Internet. And he shifted from words to minutes as the unit of measurement. He includes CDs, video games, etc. He finds that the average newspaper consumption has gone from 16 mins/day to 6.5mins/day. But most of the charts are climbing at a tremendous rate. E.g., Average American home spends 1.10 hr/day on the Net (which includes houses with no access). The total media supply to the home has gone up exponentially. The total media consumed in minutes per day is a much shallower curve, from about 600 mins per day in 1960 to about 1,000 mins per day, in part because homes now have more TV sets and portable media. The growth of media supply consumption grew very slowly 1960-1980, but has gone up from single digits (minutes per day) to over 20,000. The ratio was 98:1 — if you read every book and watched every minute of TV available, the ratio of supply to consumption was 98:1. “That was a human metric. You can deal with that.” But in 2005, it’s 20943:1, which is not a human level of metric. “And this counts the Internet as one. You should count the number of pages available to you” which is somewhere north of 8.5 billion.


So, he says, we need the help of machines with their algorithms and socially-based recommendation systems. Search is incredibly important in this world of super-abundance, he says. It will help us to think about the new media in the context of the old, he says.


Q: You think volume is the fundamental factor. You’re saying the volume changes the nature of media from push to pull. Maybe it’s volume + technical affordance. If you look at satellite TV or cable TV, those didn’t fundamentally change the nature of the medium as the volume went up.
A: “Affordance” makes the “you’re a techno-determinist” criticism go away, because it says that technology isn’t determinative but it does have capabilities that people can take up. As far as the first part of the question that said “Isn’t it more complicated than…,” the answer is always yes. About regulation: The argument for regulation was spectrum scarcity, which is why we don’t regulate the print medium. Ironically, we got one newspaper in a market but dozens of broadcasters.
The shape of media could come from a number of places, but it’s going to come from Google.

Q: How about the number of words going out from households?
A: 900,000 bloggers (US only)… One of the questions is: What are the topics?
Q: The Berkman MediaCloud project should help address that in a rigorous way.


Q: Pool left out data like the phone book and the home encyclopedia.
A: There’s a psychological analytic (cf. Todd Gittlin) of info overload: people panic and withdraw when faced with this much info. But people who entered a library weren’t intimidated by it. That seems to be the case with the Web.


Q: [yochai benkler] I’m surprised that you predict it’d take me longer to view all the movies than read all of the Net. You’re masking the actual size of the increase in media access…
A: Yes. I had to mask in order to make the other sources visible, so I counted it as one channel. But it makes my point even more strongly…
Q: When you construe the Net as a flow of info that a human has to parse, you get your way of approaching the problem: We have to rely on Google or a friend. But that masks what’s going on. We’re producing. We have to construct our own social environments. It’s not just push to pull, but also read to write. (Push to pull are read categories.) And the question of power depends on whether the machine is impervious to workarounds. The only tv broadcasters could not be worked around. But on the Net I can find others with related interests.”
A: Important questions. Let me bring out some points I didn’t make in my talk. It costs $3M/hr for TV. $16M/hr for a motion picture. We’ve developed historically a metric that people are willing to pay, say, $10 to see a movie, and that’s split 50:50 between the distributor and the motion picture company. They make $5/hr, whereas on TV the revenue is about $0.60/hr (commercials). Google News is repurposing independent professional journalism; if a competitive search engine started doing independent investigative journalism, and Google would do the same. [Sorry for the choppiness]


Q: The Internet is all about entertainment. People are reading fewer books.
A: You revealed your presumption when you said that books are hard to read and are good for you, while Internet is easy and not good for you. Where is the evidence that reading Shakespearean sonnets makes you a better person?


Q: You could argue, marxistly, that mass production changes how people interact with their environments. What’s the parallel of this and the mass production of consumer goods?
A: Alienation theory? When Marx got paid, rarely, he got paid as an independent investigative journalist. The Net makes it easier to find unalienated work (made by craftspeople who is not alienated from the product of her labor).


A: There are so many research questions that these technology afford that we should have our research budgets doubled.

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