Archive for the “Freedom to Create” Category

Twenty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee posted this announcement on Usenet (the main Internet forums of the day). The key line:

“The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere.”

Berners-Lee didn’t just give this to the world. He deliberately declined to patent this work, because he wanted wide adoption of his invention and believed in a culture of open, not closed.

We are all in his debt.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 21, 2010.

A partisan vote on Tuesday displeases everyone. And everyone’s right

The neutering of the Internet is now the unofficial policy of the Federal Communications Commission. Contrary to the happy talk from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a rule-making announcement today in Washington, the move is well underway to turn the Internet into a regulated playground for corporate giants.

Tuesday’s FCC vote on rules purportedly designed to ensure open and free networks was a 3-2 partisan charade, with Genachowski and the other two Democratic commissioners in favor and the two Republicans against. It did nothing of the sort. The short-term result will be confusion and jockeying for position. Genachowski’s claim that the rules bring “a level of certainty” to the landscape was laughable unless he was talking about lobbyists and lawyers; their futures are certainly looking prosperous. The longer-range result will be to solidify the power of the incumbent powerhouses — especially telecommunications providers and the entertainment industry — to take much more control over what we do online.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 3, 2010.

Attacks on WikiLeaks are part of an attack on free speech, aided by the companies that make up the Web’s backbone

UPDATED

The WikiLeaks affair is highlighting the Internet’s soft underbelly: the intermediaries on which we all rely to store our information and make it available. We are learning, to our dismay, that we cannot trust them. Combine that with increasing government intervention, we’re also learning that the Internet is somewhat easier to censor than we’d assumed.

This should worry anyone who believes that we’re going to move our data and online lives into the fabled “cloud” — the diffused online array of hardware and services where, proponents say, we can do our online work, play and commerce without the need for storing data on our own personal computers. Trusting the cloud is becoming an act of faith, and it’s time to question that faith.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 29, 2010.

Among others: How secret are diplomatic cables when 3 million people have access to them?

UPDATED

Once again, WikiLeaks has thrown governments and journalists into a maelstrom of fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’ll be weeks, if not longer, before we know the full scope of the diplomatic cables, but a few things are already clear enough.

What we know is being covered relentlessly here and across the Web. It’s what we don’t know that I’d like to note. So, here are some questions, many of which prompted by tweets and commentary elsewhere, for the major players in this drama.

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This article was originally published on Salon on August 23, 2010.

As Google gives carriers more sway over the operating system, customers need more options

When Google introduced the Nexus One smartphone early this year, we got a glimpse into what the future could be if device makers a) wrested control of the device from the mobile carriers and b) trusted users to decide what software they could run on the hardware they’d purchased. The heart of this notion was Google’s Android operating system running on a device that wasn’t subject to a mobile carrier’s deliberate limitations on how it could be used.

The experiment wasn’t a rousing success for several reasons, not least Google’s ineptness at running a store where it had to, gasp, deal with actual human customers needing technical support. Still, the Nexus One was the class of the not-Apple world, in my view, which is why I bought one and still use it with almost entirely happy results.

But Google has withdrawn from selling its own devices except to developers. And in the process, as ZDNet’s Jason Hiner persuasively explains, it’s ceded back to the carriers selling Android phones the control that users had expected for themselves with an open-source operating system.

Meanwhile, Google has made ominous common cause with Verizon in the policy arena, saying that it’s OK to toss out network neutrality — the idea that carriers shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of content — on mobile networks. Add it all up, and Google’s retreat is distressing.

The emboldened carriers have started loading all kinds of “crapware” — apps from partner companies that can’t be removed in standard configurations and that can slow down the devices. (For that matter, Google itself has done this with the Nexus One and Android, by putting unremovable apps into the operating system updates.)

Now, you can get an iPhone without this stuff. Unfortunately, you also get AT&T’s lackluster network and, much worse, Apple’s control freakery. Apple decides through its app-approval process what you’re allowed to use on the device, where Android phones (in almost all cases) don’t block you from installing what you want in addition to what they’ve already placed on the phones.

I wish Google — or more likely HTC or some other manufacturer willing to risk annoying the carriers — would sell an Android handset that I could use any way I want: an unlocked, un-crapwared device with lots of power and room to expand. Unfortunately there’s no sign of such a phone on the horizon, though I’ll keep watching.

The alternative is less attractive. It’s the rough equivalent of what the iPhone community calls “jailbreaking” – removing the artificial limitations in the operating system by fixing the software.

In the Android world this is typically called “rooting” the phone (again, not exactly the same thing as jailbreaking an iPhone), or giving the customer what’s also called “Superuser” access to all functions. There are risks in doing this, notably in security, but increasingly I’m inclined to believe they’re worth it.

So as I look for a new Android phone, which I’m doing as the hardware gets better and better, I’m watching several online forums for information, especially the XDA Developers site. Notably, I want to knowbefore I buy that I can root the phone and, in some cases, update to the latest Android operating system with full features.

Unfortunately, this process isn’t always easy or simple, which is just fine, I’m sure, with the mobile network companies. But until we move into a mobile world where at least one carrier and manufacturer allow their customers to actually own what they’ve purchased, we’ll be forced to overcome these barriers.

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This article was originally published on Salon on August 9, 2010.

Ominous references to the “public Internet” inescapably suggest something else entirely

So Google and Verizon had not, in fact, cooked up a special business dealfor their mutual benefit. But what they have cooked up, as announced today, may be no great deal for you and me: the idea of a parallel network that could, in the long run, become the default network — at the very least for entertainment and truly advanced services.

At first glance, no one could argue with what the companies’ CEOs, Eric Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg, announced on Monday: A “joint effort by two companies to offer a suggestion” to public policy makers, as Seidenberg put it. (Both CEOs denounced last week’s media hyperventilating, based on stories in the New York Times and Bloomberg News, as bogus journalism, though they didn’t use that precise phrase. “There is no business relationship,” Schmidt said on a conference call.)

Their suggestion? Essentially, it was to insist that the Internet should remain open and freely available, with enforcement teeth to ensure what most people would call network neutrality, the idea that carriers can’t discriminate against one content provider in favor of another.

But the proposal went further. It would promote the expansion of new services, not part of the  Internet as we know it now, that would go beyond anything we have today. These new services, if Congress and regulators enacted the companies’ proposal, could not be designed to be end runs around net neutrality; they would have to be genuinely new.

But here’s the rub: You should not trust Verizon or other carriers, or Google for that matter, to follow through in ways that are truly in the interest of the kind of open networks the nation needs. Throughout the conference call, we kept hearing references to the “public Internet” — an expression that leads inescapably to something else.

If Schmidt was telling the truth when he said Google’s overwhelming focus will remain on the public Internet, such as his promise that YouTube will remain there, that’s great. I have no reason to disbelieve him, and Google’s track record to date is strong on this issue. But plans change, managements change, and corporate goals change.

The other big news in today’s announcement was Google’s clear retreat on network neutrality when it comes to wireless networks. As Susan Crawford, professor at Cardozo Law School and an expert on all things Internet, explains: “That’s a huge hole, given the growing popularity of wireless services and the recent suggestion by the Commission that we may not have a competitive wireless marketplace.”

For Verizon’s part, the acceptance of what sounds like fairly serious neutrality rules on current wire-line networks was welcome. But I see the rest as a Trojan Horse for a modern age. Verizon and other carriers have every incentive, based on their legacies, to push network upgrade investments into the parallel Internet, not the public one.

With one exception, the carriers have all but abandoned their push to bring the kind of wired-line bandwidth that other nations — Japan, South Korea, France and Sweden come immediately to mind — have done. Verizon has all but stopped building out its fast fiber-optic network to homes, leaving Comcast as the provider that is most ardently boosting connection speeds via its cable lines. (Even Comcast’s fast speeds are nothing special next to what carriers in those other nations have provided.)

So when Seidenberg said, “We have to be flexible,” my immediate thought was, uh-oh.

I’ve been worried for years that the game was on to turn the carrier-controlled Internet into just another version of television. Maybe the carriers won’t get away with that.

The right way forward is to have sufficient bandwidth that we can do pretty much anything we choose using public networks — a true broadband infrastructure where packet-switched services (moving data around, at super-fast speeds, in little packages that are reassembled at the user’s device) are the basis for all communications.

Instead, the game is on to create a parallel Internet. It’ll still be packet-switched. But they won’t call it the Internet anymore. That’s an end game we should not encourage.

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This article was originally published on Salon on August 5, 2010.

Reports of backroom deals by big players that would inhibit Web freedom are unconfirmed, but should make us uneasy

UPDATED

The Internet is abuzz with worries that the Bloomberg news service and the New York Times may have gotten it right in reports that Google and Verizon are cooking up a deal that, in the worst case, would be a blow to our digital future.

The story, denied by both companies (Google tweetVerizon blog post) in language that gives them plenty of wiggle room, essentially says that the corporate giants are on the verge of an agreement that would, as the Times says:

allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

The charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers. The agreement could eventually lead to higher charges for Internet users.

As countless commentators have already agreed, such a deal would mock something that Google has in the past adamantly maintained: the need for content-neutral treatment of what flows on the Net. It’s usually called “network neutrality,” and it means that Internet service providers — typically your cable and phone company for home broadband connections — should not get to decide what bits of data get delivered in what order and at what speed, if at all, based on who’s providing those bits of information.

That is, Verizon should not have the right to decide that it will delay what you see from, say, Salon or my personal blog if Fox News pays Verizon to put its content in the queue first. Why not? Because Internet access is an oligopoly business, creating unprecedented (at least in modern times) choke points for information.

The Federal Communications Commission, which has been making noises about doing more to make net neutrality a requirement, has been holding semi-secret meetings with many of the top players in the online world. If you and I have been represented at that table, it’s news to me, but this is how so much gets decided in our world. (UPDATE: The FCC has reportedly suspended the close-door meetings; good.)

Now we hear that Google — once the foremost proponent of net neutrality and a participant at those meetings — may be cooking up a deal with Verizon, which has also been at the FCC table. The scary thing is how plausible this is; Google is a huge company now with interests that may well be diverging from its previous commitments on the matter.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking yesterday at a conference, told reporters that the company isn’t backing away in the least from the coreprincipalprinciple (thanks, pragma). Speaking about network neutrality, he said, according to CNET:

“I want to make sure that everybody understands what we mean about it. What we mean is that if you have one data type, like video, you don’t discriminate against one person’s video in favor of another. It’s OK to discriminate across different types … There is general agreement with Verizon and Google on this issue. The issues of wireless versus wireline get very messy … and that’s really an FCC issue not a Google issue.”

So is this about wireless or wired connections, or both? How does this square with the Times report saying that Google would pay Verizon to speed YouTube videos to users’ computers? The murkiness of the entire thing is disturbing, which is one reason it feels too early to declare the imminent death of the Internet as we know it, as some commentators have done.

While I’m not ready to hyperventilate about this alleged deal, I’m more than ready to say that the policy and corporate trajectories are going in the wrong direction. I don’t trust Google to do what’s best for me. I trust Google to do what’s best for its shareholders, and if throwing net neutrality under the bus is best for Google the company will do that in a heartbeat — if allowed.

Take it for granted that the telecom companies will keep pushing for the right to control the content in the data pipes. They don’t want you to remember that they built their networks in large part with the help of government-granted monopolies and other special help; that would make it harder to claim this absolute control.

The backroom dealing is a big part of the problem here. If the FCC wants to come up with the right policy, it should make transparency part of the method.

Schmidt is board chairman of the New America Foundation, a smart-thinking organization that has done a lot to elevate policy conversations in recent years. I hope he’ll read and heed what the foundation said today in a statement:

During the 19th century a handful of wealthy industrialists dominated steel, oil refining and railroads; striking agreements to receive favorable terms for the carriage of their goods, while subjecting farmers and competitors to unreasonable and excessive charges.

Now, over a century later, history is in danger of repeating itself. After weeks of closed-door meetings sanctioned by the Federal Communication Commission, two of the largest corporations in the communications industry have reportedly negotiated an agreement on network neutrality. Though details of the agreement are not available, its terms are immaterial. It should not be the policy of the FCC to allow the largest companies to write the regulations that will determine the future of the Internet.

UPDATE: Scott Rosenberg wonders if the entire leak is just a head-fake, or possibly reflects dissent inside Google. Meanwhile, Google has put out a more strenuous denial, telling the Guardian, among others: “The New York Times is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open internet.”

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This article was originally published on Salon on July 27, 2010.

Federal ruling allows slightly more freedom to use what you’ve bought the way you want, but much more is needed

Good news in the copyright world is rare, but we have a couple of small victories to celebrate this week. The bad news: They only emphasize how grossly unbalanced our system remains.

These wins for customer freedom center around a technology broadly known as DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management — methods used by hardware and software companies to allow customers only certain rights. It should more properly be called Digital Restrictions Management, because that’s the real aim of DRM. People have found ways to break or work around DRM, but federal law makes it illegal to do so in most circumstances.

The cracks in DRM’s legal facade are starting to grow, too. On Monday, the Copyright Office and librarian of Congress said, among other things,that it’s OK to A) “jailbreak” your phone, thereby letting you install software not approved by the phone seller; and B) use brief excerpts of DVD videos in other works. Renewing a previously granted exception to federal copyright law, the office also said it was OK to unlock your phone so that you can use it with a different mobile network.

The exceptions are still fairly narrow, to be sure, and how widely they’ll be used remains to be seen given the way our mobile phone and media markets work in the real world. But they’re notable in several ways.

One is the language the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, used in his rulemaking document (1.5MB PDF). For example, he called the act of jailbreaking a phone “innocuous at worst and beneficial at best.”

Industry arguments against these exceptions, for which the Electronic Frontier Foundation had led the fight, had been laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Apple, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, took the hardest-line stance against the concept that customers should have the right to use the devices they’ve purchased as they see fit.

Apple’s objections ultimately came down to its insistence that customer freedoms would “undercut the overall iPhone experience” (emphasis from the original document filed in the case). In other words, you should only be able to use the iPhone, which is nothing more than a handheld computer connected to digital networks — albeit a wonderfully designed device — in precisely the ways Apple determines.

Having lost in the Copyright Office, Apple responded with typical arrogance, telling the Cult of Mac blog that it might now be legal to use your iPhone the way you want to, but you’ll void the warranty if you do. And you can expect Apple to keep up its cat-and-mouse game of using software updates to screw up jailbroken phones, as the iPhone Dev-Team — leaders of the jailbreaking movement – are warning.

The continued ability to unlock your phone and use it on a competing network isn’t much help, because of the insanity of America’s competing mobile standards. Even if you unlock a newer iPhone, you can’t use it to its maximum capabilities on Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile because of various radio and chip incompatibilites.

But if you travel overseas frequently, unlocking your GSM-based AT&T or T-Mobile phone will be nontrivial (assuming it isn’t already unlocked, as mine is). You can use local SIM cards in many countries and save a huge amount of money.

The other important move by the Copyright Office was to allow people to remix videos in other works. Essentially, the copyright officials observed that it was ridiculous to believe that we’re all but forbidden from quoting from others’ creative work just because it’s in a DRM’d video format.

Unfortunately, this exception is way too narrow in the real world. It allows circumvention of the DRM solely for:

(i) Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;

(ii) Documentary filmmaking;

(iii) Noncommercial videos.

In other words, it’s still not allowed to quote from another video work for commercial use (other than in a documentary). This is nuts. If authors had to get permission from every writer or publisher whose work they intended to quote, scholarship and journalism would grind to a halt.

The copyright office’s exemptions also included the right to bypass computer system dongles that are broken or obsolete; a research exception for studying video game security; and read-aloud functions in e-books if not provided by the publisher.

Again, we shouldn’t overstate the value of Monday’s ruling. The law remains horribly unbalanced in favor of the copyright holders. But any progress is helpful.

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This article was originally published on Salon on July 19, 2010.

The Library of Congress and other preservation-minded organizations ponder how we preserve what we’re creating

They’re trying to save the news. Among other things.

No, this isn’t yet another thumb-sucking cogitation about the future of journalism, at least not the kind we typically see these days. Rather, this is about a different issue: How do we save journalism (and other media) that’s already been created — including the all too ephemeral information that we’re creating online?

This week in Washington, DC, the Library of Congress is gathering its “Digital Preservation Partners” for a three-day session — one of a number of such meetings the library has been holding under a broad initiative called the “National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.” Its multi-year mission is:

to develop a national strategy to collect, preserve and make available significant digital content, especially information that is created in digital form only, for current and future generations.

It’s what my technology friends call a non-trivial task, for all kinds of technical, social and legal reasons. But it’s about as important for our future as anything I can imagine. We are creating vast amounts of information, and a lot of it is not just worth preserving but downright essential to save.

My role this week, and at a workshop I joined last year, is to be thinking about the news. My mind almost explodes when I consider the issues.

Even when there were relatively few community information sources — mostly newspapers — we had preservation issues. I started my newspaper career at a small weekly that has long since closed down. While I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a printed copy of the issues, the journalism is nowhere to be found online. And what happens when a newspaper with some printed archives and some online shuts down? Sometimes those archives go dark, too.

Even newspaper archives that exist online tend to live behind paywalls that prevent most people from using them. This greedy policy, which I’ve discussed before, has helped ensure that newspapers are less relevant in their communities than they should be.

A newspaper company I worked for deleted years worth of my blogging, twice. Once was when it changed publishing platforms. The second time was after I left the company. With some technical help I recovered and republished most of it myself.

TV and radio broadcasters have tended to save tapes or digital archives, though huge gaps have emerged in the record. Remember, storage used to be expensive.

The rise of citizen media has complicated everything. Now we had vast new sources of information, some useful and some not. (Kind of like traditional media, no?) Who had the obligation, if there was one, to save this material?

Well, we have the wonderful Brewster Kahle and his team at the Internet Archive to thank that a bunch of it still exists (including my old blogging that we recovered, no thanks to the newspaper company that killed it). The reality, however, is that much of the Web — not to mention many if not most of the great BBS conversations of earlier times — is lost.

After last year’s digital preservation meeting I suggested that we needed better ways to do our own archiving of blogs and other social media. I still believe the Library of Congress, Internet Archive and other preservation-minded folks should help the rest of us with this task.

The social question arises about people who don’t want to save what they’ve done.? Do they have a right to delete it? The Archive will take things down on request. But once you’ve put something up publicly, isn’t it public?

It’s not just a social question, but a legal one, now that judges areordering newspapers to delete archived stories. It’s a legal issue as well because copyright laws are constantly getting in the way of reasonable use of published material. The entertainment industry has taken us down a troubling path in this regard, and things are only getting worse.

And then there’s the entire question of material we create spontaneously, using databases that provide individualized experiences when we seek information. This isn’t just about search queries but about many kinds of community information sources; what you and I see when we visit Everyblock may well differ based on what we type into the text box. The only people archiving this stuff are the ones who own the databases; will the rest of us every have a look? Privacy interests say that we should not reveal it, but historians in the next century and beyond would find this absolutely crucial to their understanding of our times.

Happily, smarter people than yours truly are working on all of this. I’ll be filing some reports from the Washington meetings, to let you know what they’re thinking.

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This article was originally published on Salon on July 10, 2010.

Soccer officials and their foolish rules, trying to restrict what fans can say from inside the stadium

In the technology whack-a-mole sweepstakes, please meet this month’s winner: FIFA, the cartel that operates the World Cup. The organization actually appears to believe it can stop fans attending the games from telling people outside the stadium what’s going on inside, at least in any timely way.

Allow me to quote from the Stadium Code of Conduct, which prohibits fans from bringing into the stadium (unless perviously authorized) a long, long list of items including:

p) cameras (except for private use and then only with one set of replacement or rechargeable batteries), video cameras or other sound or video recording equipment;

q) computers or other devices used for the purposes of transmitting or disseminating sound, pictures, descriptions or results of the events via the internet or other forms of media…

Skip down a bit and you find another long list of prohibited actions once inside the stadium. The relevant one here says one may not:

record (except for private purposes), transmit, or in any other manner disseminate over the internet or any other media, including mobile devices, any sound, image, description, or result of any event taking place within the Stadium, in whole or in part, or assist any other person(s) conducting such activities; commercially exploit any photographs or images taken within the Stadium…

FIFA’s motives aren’t mysterious. Like all professional entertainment organizations — and pro sports is nothing but an entertainment business when you come down to it — the organizers want to control who’s going to make money off at least the immediate event, if not every ancillary piece. But FIFA’s rules, like so many others, are unsustainable.

In an hour or so, I’ll be heading to the consolation game of the 2010 World Cup in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with a group of journalism educators from around the world. (The sponsors of a conference where I spoke have helped pay my expenses, including a ticket to the game.) I’m not sure whether I’ll commit one of the prohibited actions, but I’ll definitely be violating the rules of what I can bring inside. And, of course, I’ll be one of the tens of thousands of people there who does so.

This is because, as FIFA knows perfectly well, most of us — surely a majority of those attending a World Cup game — carries a video camera and sound recording device at all times, as well as a computer. It’s called a mobile phone. If it’s a so-called smart phone, it’s capable of everything FIFA and other big sports cartels, such as the International Olympic Committee, have no real idea how to handle in an ecosystem they want to control so completely but which is opening up despite their wishes. (The Olympics officials made themselves look truly idiotic earlier this year with their attempts to restrict even what athletes could say.)

They can discover the pro-quality, high-definition video cameras with zoom lenses and the works, and keep that gear out. But some newer mobile devices are getting pretty slick in their video capabilities, and hidden cameras, for better or worse, are getting much, much more capable and simple to disguise. In a few years it’ll be trivially easily to disguise even a HD video recorder in, for example, buttons or caps. What will FIFA and similar organizations do then?

Rather than try to restrict the use of these devices, FIFA would be wise to encourage them. I’m not urging them to invite people to bring in fancy video gear with super-resolution close-up capabilities (yet, anyway). But to suggest that people should not be allowed to send an SMS to a friend after a goal is scored is lunatic even for the most control-freakish outfits.

In fact, if I were running FIFA’s communications/media operation, I’d invite people to be posting videos wherever they wished, and would do my best to aggregate the best ones as quickly as possible. I’d invite the global Internet audience to piece together whatever looked the most interesting videos in any way they chose, and then invite those folks to tell us where to find them so we could promote the best ones.

Will there be a time when fan-TV in real time is good enough to be good enough for the people who pay for TV service that advertisers sponsor at huge costs? Eventually, perhaps. But not right away, and there’s plenty of time for live-entertainment industries to figure out rational new rules.

Real-time social media should be a boon to big-time entertainment, including sports. I wonder if the official bodies that run them will recognize that soon enough.

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