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January 18, 2013

Clive Thompson on building another Internet

Clive Thompson is talking about the quest to build a new Net without its flaws.

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.

Problems: Governments can shut down the Net. Corporations have a lot of control over copyright, causing the corporations that deliver the Net to throttle it. And Mother Nature can shut it down, e.g. Sandy. Is it possible to build another Internet? He’s been talking with people about this, mainly with people building mesh networks.

But can you make a mesh big enough to cover the planet? Not now. But what are the biggest ones now. (1) in Spain started about 10 years ago. 19,509 nodes, 43 web servers, etc. They don’t view themselves as building a new Net but extending the old one. (2) Athens Municipal Wireless covers about 50% of Greece that has internal versions of Google, Yahoo, etc. Way faster than normal Nets. (3) Quintana Libre serves a rural town of fewer than 500 people, speeds up to 20mbps. (4) Red Hook’s mesh provides local services that don’t show up off the mesh.

For mesh to work, the local community has to be really invested in it.

A guy in Australia has tech — Serval — that lets you make mobile-to-mobile calls to your normal phone number but without cell towers.

So, can you build another Net? You can do inter-continental hops: Australia to Slovenia exists. People are talking about buying decommissioned satellites “but you’d need a really big Kickstarter for that.”

So can you build a new one? Yes, and no, and no and maybe. Reliability and scalability? Mesh sw is still way too geeky. Bootstrapping conundrum: people want global connections, not just local.

Q: [me] But mesh currently connects outside of the mesh to the Internet via the existing Internet backbones. Is there any hope for a pure mesh Internet?

A: Not yet.

Q: Suppose we scaled back our expectations and started with mesh just for SMS, for example?

A: Yes, and that’d be great for activists who want to connect.

A: The examples I gave are all different. Quintana just wants access to the big Internet, but in Athens much of what they want is access to their own local stuff.


May 26, 2012

[2b2k][mesh] Setting the record straight: Overall, the networking of knowledge is awesome

Christine Dobby posted at the Financial Post about my session at the Mesh conference on Thursday in Toronto. She accurately captured two ideas, but missed the bigger point I was trying to make, which — given how well she captured the portion of my comments she blogs about — was undoubtedly my fault. Worse, the post gives incredibly short shrift to two powerful and important sessions that morning by Rebecca MacKinnon and Michael Geist about the threats to Internet freedom…way more important (in my view, natch) than what the FP post leads with.

To judge for yourself, you might want to check the live blogging I did of the sessions by Rebecca and Michael. These were great sessions by leaders in their fields, people who are full-time working on keeping the Internet free and open. They are fighting for us and our Internet. (Likewise true of Andy Carvin, of course, who gave an awesome afternoon session.) What they said seems to me clearly to be so much more important than my recapitulation of a decade-old argument that I think is valid but is not even half the story.

On to moi moi moi.

Christine does a nice job summarizing my summary of the echo chamber argument, and I’m pleased that she followed that up with my use of Reddit as an example of how an echo chamber — a group that shares a set of beliefs, values, and norms — can enable a sympathetic yet critical encounter with those who hold radically different views. But, here are the first two paragraphs of Christine’s post about the morning at Mesh:

With the vast sprawl of the web — and in spite of its power to fact check information — stupidity abounds, says David Weinberger.

“One of the bad things we get from networked knowledge is it’s easier than ever to be stupid because you can find other people who can reinforce your beliefs,” the U.S. academic, Internet commentator and author of the recent Too Big to Know told a Toronto audience Thursday.

True, and I did indeed say that. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m going around to conferences bashing the Net as a stupidity enabler. In fact, I spent the first half hour at Mesh being interviewed by the inestimable Mathew Ingram about the rise of networked knowledge, about which I am overall quite enthusiastic. The networking of knowledge is enabling knowledge to scale far beyond the limits within which it’s operated since it was born 2,500 years ago. It’s enabling knowledge to shed some of the blinkered limitations that it had embraced as a virtue. Overall, it’s an awesomely good thing, although I did try to point out some of the risks and dangers.

So, it’s weird for me to read in the FP that the take-away is that the Net is creating echo chambers that are making us stupider. Indeed, as my remarks on Reddit were intended to indicate, the echo chamber argument can lead us to underestimate the positive importance of groups sharing views and values: conversation and understanding itself require a huge amount of agreement to be productive. As I wrote not too long ago, culture is an echo chamber.

So, put Christine’s post together with the post you’re currently reading and you’ll get a more accurate representation of what I intended to say and certainly what I believe. Sort of like how networked knowledge works, come to think of it :)

More important, go read what Rebecca, Michael, and Andy had to say. (And I also really liked Michael O’Connor Clarke’s session, but couldn’t live blog it.)

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May 24, 2012

[mesh] Michael Geist on the emergence of the Internet constituency

Michael Geist (@mgeist), a Canadian hero, is giving at talk at Mesh.

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.

When SOPA was introduced, it seemed likely to pass. Bipartistan love fest. But then the Internet fought back, from the Free Bieber campaign to online petitions. The number one source of info about SOPA was not the NYT or the Washington Post but a TechDirt blog post. (As an aside, someone launched a take down notice of this blog post, so it didn’t even appear in he Google search engine for a month.) The Reddit community was very active. E.g., when GoDaddy was listed as a supporter of SOPA, Reddit started a campaign to transfer domains from there. GoDaddy changed its mind. The big moment was when Wikipedia blacked out its English-language home page. That page was accessed 162M times that day — a striking ability to raise awareness. Other sites blacked out as well. The effect was dramatic: Within a day Congressional support swung.

For months people have been trying to figure out the “SOPA Story.” How did the number one legislative effort from the number one lobby go down in flames?

In Canada we can go back to Sam Bulte. The rise of groups lobbying for rights. The rise of social networks. The use of social media by rights-favoring politicians. So, in a sense, SOPA is nothing new here in Canada.

Blackouts aren’t new either: 1996 “computer decency act” protest. NewZealand’s protest. Italian-language Wikipedia blacked out last year.

So, in some ways the SOPA Story was nothing new. What’s new is what’s happening after SOPA…the enabling coming to people who think they now can truly affect what happens online. E.g., ACTA protests in Europe. Polish MPs donning Guy Fawkes masks. The dominoes have started to fall against ACTA. Now Neelie Kroes has said that ACTA is all but dead.

Likewise, the Research Works Act tried to scale back access to publicly-funded research. The Net fought back, withdrawing support from Elsevier, the key lobbyist for the RWA. Elsevier has withdrawn support for RWA and there is a petition now to go the other way. [SIGN THE PETITION]

In Canada, Proecting Children from Internet Predators Act — a 100-age bill that contains the word “children” only in its title. The Internet fought back. E.g., TellVic. It has been withdrawn, although temporarily.

The Net is spreading word. E.g., Kony 2012 spread around the world. There’s debate about whether it has had any effect, but the UN from people on the ground is that it has made a difference. Likewise, Trayvon Martin’s story was told through social media. Or, now, the Quebec student initiatives that started with just a few people but has grown because of social media.

LEssons: Don’t underestimate the power of social media to bring prople together to have a voice on issues. Second, SOPA happened only 18 months. We’re seeing a dramatic shift. The full consequences have not yet played out.

The third lesson is pessimistic. If this is the year that the Internet fought back, the battle may have been won but the fight continues. E.g., CETA, Trans Pacific Partnership (copyright tyranny), etc. There are reasons for optimism, but we have a long struggle ahead.
Q: How long are we going to have to keep fighting our governments? When do we stop having to argue that social interests take priority over business interests?

A: E.g., this week public pressure worked on an act that had been given to the telcos for prior consultation. E.g., look at how the copyright bill has changed: changes to fair dealing, cap on statutory damages, consumer exceptions, etc. None of that was there originally. More politicians get it. But the content industries are powerful. The Internet is becoming an increasingly powerful voice.

Q: ICANN works on a multistakeholder model and has a limited mandate about setting policy. Some want to relegate that authority to the UN that runs it as a think tank. Which way is better?

A: The ITU has been pushing for governance space for then years. At ICANN some stakeholders count more than others. If the UN does it, repressive countries get the keys to the Net. I don’t see the ITU play happening.

Q: With SOPA there was a lot of groupthink. It lacked subtlety and nuance.

A: We’ve had 30 years of lobbying by rights holders with a total lack of nuance: “It’s theft. It’s piracy. Shut it down.” Not reflective of what’s actually happening. So, yes, some are slackivists just clicking on a Like button. But they are more informed than the general populace on these issues. I did a talk for 8th grade students, and almost all of them had heard of SOPA and Kony, and most knew more about Kony than they knew before March of this year.

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[mesh] Rebecca MacKinnon

Rebecca MacKinnon is on stage at the Mesh conference in Toronto, being interviewed by Ron Hyndman about her excellent, excellent book, Consent of the Networked.

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.

Q: What drew you to this? What in your experience of the Internet drew you to this?

A: What drew me to it was my work overseas as a journalist. I was in China for CNN when the Net showed up in China. And we saw how it challenged China’s government. They recognized this from the beginning. They knew that if you want to be globally powerful, you can’t just turn off the Internet, as North Korea did. Over time, when I left CNN and co-founded Global Voices, I was working with bloggers around the world who were facing threats of censorship. Yet there are a lot of voices pushing back.

There were a number of different books I could have written but I kept encountering people who thought the Net is the way it is. But the Net is a variable, not a constant. It’s affected by legislatures, engineers, bureaucrats, a whole range of different actors. Depending on what people do, it can evolve in different directions, some more compatible with democracy and civil liberties than others. Just as if you want Toronto to be governed in a way that protects your rights, those who are most active in shaping it, so you need to be involved in the politics. We need to act more as citizens of the Internet rather than as passive users.

Q: In the early days, the Web was a primitive place. What did you see the gov’t of China doing then, and how was it affecting you as a journalist?

From the getgo it put together the Great Wall of China, a system of filters to block sites it doesn’t want citizens to see.

Q: Did you think it would work?

Journalists learned how to use proxies, got VPNs, etc. The govt was also imposing restrictions on businesses in China, requiring them to police content and comply with surveillance requirements. They held companies liable for what their users do. Now the govt has outsourced a lot of the surveillance to companies. The Great Firewall blocks what’s on servers outside of China by people the Chinese govt can’t arrest. Within the country, the govt can put people in jail. The social media companies within are responsible for monitoring.

[I was called away for ten minutes]

A whistleblower let it be known that AT&T was siphoning off all the traffic and sending it to the NSA. The tech was created by Norris [sp?], now owned by Boeing, licensed via Egypt to Libya and other places. Arrangements and norms liberal democracies have slid into without public debate to deal with crime etc. have been accepted around the world. Take the same technology and practice and stick them in repressive countries and you get human rights abuses.

Q: In the same way military contractors have built private armies, the surveillance world has been outsourced without any transparency. The telecoms in the US negotiated immunity for themselves after the fact.

Yes. FISA. So you can’t sue them for violating the law. Groups have pushed against this. But there’s so much pressure not to be “soft on crime.” Before the Net, we had models for holding power accountable. In the digital world, with cross-border networks, we don’t have a good way of holding power accountable. We need communication companies to be thinking about Shared Value. It won’t be easy or quick.

Q: Democracy has never advanced by people asking politely, as someone said.

With SOPA we’ve seen people being less polite. And the European protests against ACTA. The movement is growing fast.

Q: What do we need to think about when Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, occupy such an enormous part of our online attention?

Lots. How do the rules of terms and service shape our identity on line, and what is known about us. And the decisions about what you can see online. E.g., Apple’s rules for the App Store have come under scrutiny, as when Mark Fiori’s political cartoon was banned for being offensive. What political cartoon isn’t offensive? Or a woman did a documentary on prostitution in Rhode Island, the kind of subject that you hope independent filmmakers will cover. Her app was rejected. No explanation. Meanwhile the App Store allows the HBO app that shows programs about prostitution. There’s a real concern that the Apple Store is skewed against independent artists, and favors the big brands when they have relationships with.

Facebook has this “real name” requirement. You can’t use a pseudonym. In a lot of countries, there are people being arrested for what they post on FB. FB’s refusal to allow pseudonyms and their problematic privacy standards have raised a lot of issues for people who are vulnerable. A lot of US politicians are dependent on FB. You don’t have to ba Syrian dissident. You can be the victim of spousal abuse or someone who doesn’t want your boss to know that you’re interested in gay marriage, FB is not a good place to be.

[Audience now asks questions]

Q: How should a company like NetSweeper think about its business. Should it be asking countries what it’s going to use it for before selling it to them?

You’re right that these are really hard questions. NetSweeper was intended for families to protect their kids. But then they get used at a national level by govts to block content. NetSense has a similar product and just joined the GNI and have committed not to sell their tech to govts that are known human rights abusers. Companies need to do due diligence and draw some lines.

Q: ThePirateBay physically moved servers into the air with balloons, literally in the cloud. Might some companies move the Net away from their country, or even into space, to remove the control?

Someone has a project to create an island in the middle of the ocean and put servers there. Lots of experimentation going on to take servers out of any national jurisdiction. We’ll see how it goes, but I imagine ways will be way to assert jurisdiction over these things. I’m all for trying. But ultimately we have to try to get companies to be more responsible, and impose consequences when they do not respect rights. Political activism is important. We have to re-occupy these other spaces (commercial, govt).

Q: How has Canada done? And do you see the political shift in Canada affecting Internet freedom here?

Let’s leave that for Michael Geist (next speaker).

Al Jazeera played a key role in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but toned down its coverage of Bahrain because of its owners.

That’s why you don’t want to trust any one news source.

Q: Will Iran succeed in disconnecting the country from the Internet?

I don’t know if they’re going to disconnect entirely or try to get citizens using domestic sources primarily. China succeeded because they started at the beginning, and thus there are robust Chinese alternatives to Western social media, thanks to Western venture capitalism. For a lot of users, if you cut them off from the outside Net they wouldn’t notice it for a while. It’s different in Iran where there’s much greater dependence on outside Net services.

Q: NY state wants to impose a law that no site registered in the state can accept anonymous comments?

That’d be pretty unfortunate. I can see some services imposing real name requirements and people can choose to use or not use those services. But pseudonomity is important for people who don’t feel participating in public discourse under their real names. That’d be bad for our democracy.

Rob: Go to Rebecca’s book’s Web site where there’s a tab for “getting involved.”

The paperback will have a new chapter…


May 8, 2009

Robin Chase on the smart grid, smart cars, and the power of mesh networks

Pardon the self-bloggery-floggery, but has just posted an article of mine that presents Robin “ZipCar” Chase’s argument that the smart grid and smart cars need to be thought about together. Actually, she wants all the infrastructures we’re now building out to adopt open, Net standards, and would prefer that the Internet of Everything be meshed up together. (Time Mag just named Robin as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. We can only hope that’s true.)

The article is currently on Wired’s automotive page, but it may be moved to the main page today or tomorrow.

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