Pervasive surveillance is an attack on the Web and the Internet. It demands both technical and policy responses, and both of those are fostered by what Jamie Boyle called “an environmentalism for the Net.”
February 11, 2014
February 1, 2011
Over the last week, I’ve been glued to my Twitter feed (hashtags #jan25, #egypt, and @ioerror, @jilliancyork and @EthanZ are good aggregators) and Al Jazeera English to follow events in Egypt. I can only watch and tweet my support (and work with groups like Tor Project whose technology and training helps dissidents stay safer when they have Net access) as people mass in Tahrir Square for a million+ person march.
I recognize the location of some of Al Jazeera footage from a visit to Cairo. Poignantly, that was in November 2008, in the final days of the U.S. presidential election, when I used the Internet to make skype-based get-out-the-vote calls. Since Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, the Egyptians who cheered Obama’s victory around me had never had the opportunity to vote in meaningful free elections.
As Egypt’s January 25 protests continued, the Egyptian government cut off Internet access (see reports from The Tor Project, Renesys, and RIPE) and mobile SMS from most of the country’s providers. Yesterday, Noor.net, the final provider that had continued to offer Internet connectivity, also became unreachable. Even phone service is uncertain. Andrew McLaughlin eloquently called upon Communications Minister Tarek Kamel to restore communications.
That cut-off in itself demonstrates some of the value of Internet communications: the unpopular government fears the organizing resources the Net provides for citizens, and the window it gives to the world watching and trying to help. While it’s far too early to measure the Net’s impact on revolutionary movements in Egypt, and Tunisia only weeks earlier, we can find potential impacts. Were Egyptians inspired by news from Tunisia’s uprising, some of it reaching them faster online? Did they use social media to organize, along with off-line means? Did social media help to amplify off-line protests, showing solidarity among friends and people they respected, encouraging more to take to the streets? It’s clear that we in the United States have had access to much more information, through the Net, even cut off as it has been, than we’d get quickly from a pre-Internet revolution.
We also see that the Internet is not any particular means of data transport. The independence of layers means that applications don’t care what the route underneath looks like, so long as there is one. That meant that even cutting off Internet service providers couldn’t stop information flows: while Egyptians could call out from the country, they could tell their stories at @jan25voices, and through the Google-Twitter-Phone service, @speak2tweet, that automates some of the voice-Twitter connection. Other providers outside Egypt have offered dial-up lines.
Moreover, the situation illustrates the value of open Internet here at home. Al Jazeera English, the television broadcaster giving the most thorough coverage of the Egyptian events — despite having its Cairo bureau closed and six of its journalists jailed — is not available through most US cable providers. Ryan Grim on Huffington Post calls this a “blackout”, but thanks to the Internet, that need not be a barrier. I’m watching Al Jazeera English on my computer, through pipes that can carry video, audio, and text of my choice. (So it’s disturbing to see Chris Sacca tweet that he “worked at an Akamai competitor when Al-Jazeera sought CDN [content delivery network: local caching that can help improve network delliery] help in 2002. US Gov made clear to us that we would suffer.” Cable’s limited-purpose pipe, where subscribers get only bundles chosen from among the channels their providers offer, seems an anachronism in the Internet age. We may still want to watch video (and not only create it ourselves), but we need Net neutrality’s assurance that we can get it from any source: peer, professional, or dissident.
I’ll continue to watch the tweets and video online, hoping that in the near future, I’ll be able to celebrate with the Egyptian people as they vote in free and democratic elections.
December 11, 2009
One of the very interesting sessions at Supernova featured a pair of speakers on aspects of privacy and publicity: danah boyd on “visibility” and Adam Greenfield on “urban objects.” Together, I found their talks making me think about the functions of privacy: how can we steer the course between too much and too little information-sharing?
danah pointed out the number of places we don’t learn enough. We “see” others on social media but fail to follow through on what we learn. She described a teen whose MySpace page chronicled abuse at her mother’s hands for months before the girl picked up a weapon. After the fact, the media jumped on “murder has a MySpace,” but before, none had used that public information to help her out of the abuse. In a less dramatic case of short-sighted vision, danah showed Twitter users responding to trending black names after the BET Awards with “what’s happening to the neighborhood?” Despite the possibilities networked media offer, we often fail to look below the surface, to learn about those around us and make connections.
Adam, showing the possibilities of networked sensors in urban environments, described a consequence of “learning too much.” Neighbors in a small apartment building had been getting along just fine until someone set up a web forum. In the half year thereafter, most of the 6 apartments turned over. People didn’t want to know so much about those with whom they shared an address. Here, we might see what Jeffrey Rosen and Lawrence Lessig have characterized as the problem of “short attention spans.” We learn too much to ignore, but not enough to put the new factoid in context. We don’t pay attention long enough to understand.
How do we get the “just right” level of visibility to and from others? and what is “just right”? danah notes that we participate in networked publics, Helen Nissenbaum talks of contexts. One challenge is tuning our message and understanding to the various publics in which we speak and listen; knowing that what we put on Facebook or MySpace may be seen by many and understood by few. Like danah, Kevin Marks points out the asymmetry of the publics to which we speak and listen.
Another challenge is to find connections among publics and build upon them to engage with those who seem different, Ethan Zuckerman’s xenophilia. The ‘Net may have grown past the stage where just Internet use could be conversation-starter enough but spaces within it take common interest and create community. Socializing in World of Warcraft or a blog’s comments section can make us more willing to hear our counterparts’ context.
Finally, our largest public, here in the United States, is our democracy. We need to live peacefully with our neighbors and reach common decisions. Where our time is too limited to bestow attention on all, do we need to deliberately look away? John Rawls, in Political Liberalism, discusses political choices supported by an “overlapping consensus” from people with differing values and comprehensive views of “the good.” I wonder whether this overlapping consensus depends on a degree of privacy and a willingness to look away from differences outside the consensus.
November 29, 2009
This coming week, I’ll be reporting from Supernova, Kevin Werbach’s excellent conference on networks, communication, and the things we do with them. The great thing about this gathering is the one that makes it hardest to describe — it takes a broad view of “Networks” and brings together people with a wide range of perspectives on their use. I’ll hope to capture some of that energy here.
September 21, 2009
In a speech this morning, widely heralded (and criticized) as a call for “network neutrality,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski: “Why has the Internet proved to be such a powerful engine for creativity, innovation, and economic growth? A big part of the answer traces back to one key decision by the Internet’s original architects: to make the Internet an open system.”
Now “open system” doesn’t mean anarchy. The Internet has rules, technical standards codified in the unassuming sounding “Requests for Comment.” As described by the author of RFC 1, Steve Crocker (How the Internet Got Its Rules), the RFCs were designed to help people coordinate activity, to build an interoperable network: “After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing.” By coordinating an open infrastructure, the Net’s architects left room for expansion at the edges.
While critics have been quick to call the statement and the rules it prefigures “government regulation,” Chairman Genachowski says “this is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road,” (a phrase picked up by Commissioners Copps and Clyburn in their supporting statements). Like rules of the road, basic non-discrimination and transparency principles promote interoperability: As every driver and car manufacturer knows what to expect of the highways, every Internet user and application-developer should know what he or she can assume as substrate.
Yes, road rules constrain some innovation at the core — you can’t build a public road with braid-like traffic patterns where cars freely weave in and out in both directions, or with yellow stop signs and green “yield,” but you can still improve the pavement or road reflectors. The added predictability of a standard interface enables other more significant innovation at the edges — the Porsche, Prius, Smart, and Tesla can all drive on the same standard highway.
Most importantly, Chairman Genachowski shows he understands the option value of network openness — leaving room for the unexpected:
The Internet’s creators didn’t want the network architecture — or any single entity — to pick winners and losers. Because it might pick the wrong ones. Instead, the Internet’s open architecture pushes decision-making and intelligence to the edge of the network — to end users, to the cloud, to businesses of every size and in every sector of the economy, to creators and speakers across the country and around the globe. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet is a “blank canvas” — allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission.
As the Net’s core became more fixed since the days of RFC 1, it has enabled attachment of various devices and formats, some of which would become standards in their own right (HTTP, HTML) others of which would never really take off (VRML 3D modeling). We can’t pick winners, but we can build a field for contests worth winning.
Working through the details of the proposed FCC rules will be critical, and difficult, but the principles Genachowski offers for implementation provide a solid foundation.
July 25, 2008
A group of us filed formal comments with the FCC arguing that “free, filtered broadband,” as the FCC proposed to mandate in the AWS-3 spectrum auction, is not “Internet.” Comments here, in WT Docket 07-195.
Commenters strongly support the deployment and ubiquitous availability of broadband services across the country. We are concerned, however, that the Commisson’s proposed rule requiring content-filtering on broadband offered over the AWS-3 band destroys the “Internet” character of the service. The Internet is distinguished by its flexibility as a platform on which new services can be built with no pre-arrangement. While requiring filtering of known protocols in itself raises serious First Amendment conflicts, forcing the blocking of unknown or unrecognized traffic hampers both speech and innovation. We therefore urge the Commission to drop the filtering conditions from its Final Rule.
Thanks to all who helped with the Comments!
May 20, 2008
Next stop, CFP.
May 14, 2008
When we launched “The Berkman Center for Internet & Society” in 1998, some wondered whether we were just talking about the “law of the horse,” but the intervening 10 years have shown us that horse has legs. The Internet’s distributed communication systems have taught us something new about speech, creativity, and culture — showing the economic flourishing of all these in a distributed, open network.
Berkman’s founding visionary, Charlie Nesson, recognized openness as a core principle early, and others have gradually caught on: freedom at the core means more opportunities to generate value elsewhere in the network. Free software supports better-specialized hardware, user-optimized development, and electronic commerce. Open-access non-discriminatory networks support both commerce and communities.
April 1, 2008
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 31, 2008 - Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they feel safe online despite the rising tide of spyware, phishing and other badware threatening Internet users, according to a new poll sponsored by StopBadware.org, the consumer protection initiative aimed at combating dangerous software.
“What we have here is an Internet security paradox,” said Maxim Weinstein, who manages the StopBadware.org team at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “Americans see themselves as safe online, even as we see an ongoing trend of organized criminal elements using the Internet to target unsuspecting users.” Weinstein will testify at the Federal Trade Commission on April 1 about how to better educate users about the dangers of phishing, a deceptive practice responsible for $2.1 billion in identity theft damages last year, according to Consumer Reports.
I wonder, though, do we think that mistaken feeling of safety is a bad thing? I don’t — I think it’s great that we have enough of a safety net that people who don’t have the technical competence to deal with PC security threats nonetheless are being generative and participatory. I don’t think we’d gain by scaring those Internet users, even through education. While malware problems are often compared to public health, we don’t have a solution that’s as easy and effective as one-time vaccination to make computer users safer.
I’d suggest instead that social insurance and systematic efforts to prosecute criminal use of malware are better responses than demanding that individual Internet users pay attention, educate themselves, and stay vigilant against ever-mutating threats.