We are the internet – so take back the internet!

December 22nd, 2006

Bob Frankston hits the “network neutrality” nail squarely on the head in his article “Our Internet!

We are the Internet…We don’t need be given “Internet” by a central authority because the defining principle is that we can and must connect from the edge rather than relying on carrier be it a Telco or “Internet Inc”…It’s time we took control over our local transport – just as we own the wires in our homes and the roads in our communities we must also own our local information transports.

We must not tolerate being forced to buy services from providers that have a stranglehold on our wires – whether they are physical wires or radios. Today our ability to communicate is limited by the unenlightened business needs of the carriers. This is intolerable and inexcusable.

The situation is tolerated because it seems obvious that we need someone to govern and operate the Internet.

We don’t. The expedient compromises that define today’s Internet are not necessary. We do not need an organization to hand out identifiers. we do need not an omniscient network operator to keep track of all the local networks and relationships. Most of all, we do not need a centralized directory to assign names.

What Bob describes is the principle behind the inherent freedom of the internet, and the reason why “network neutrality” is so important to the continued evolution of the internet. Since the internet is emergent from the interaction of its endpoints, there is no need for centralized control, which is in fact antithetical to the very existence of the internet. The internet would simply not exist if control was centralized.

Freedom from the Internet…If the Internet itself arises from taking control ourselves outside the network then we needn’t be dependent upon Internet Inc!

This is not at all theory. It’s practiced every day in the P2P world. P2P is really just a rediscovery of the basic End-to-End principle of the Internet. Unfortunately that’s often confused with Womb-to-Tomb because it’s hard for people to understand how you can make promises without having full control of every element of the network. The Internet isn’t a network like the phone network – it’s just a word we use for what happens when those with nothin’ to lose and everything to gain get together. They form their own communities.

I believe strongly that if the internet as we know it becomes overly constrained by commercial interests, the forces that created it will have no avenue other than to create a new internet. Perhaps the newcomer will be akin to the “Metaverse” in Snow Crash.

I’m not sure how we will take back the ‘net but P2P overlay networks seem to be part of the answer, you can tell they get it right because they scare the hell out of the telcos. Skype is a great example of a network build on top of a network. Web services could create another similar layer. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

Domain Tasting: yummy web spam!

December 20th, 2006

I just read a very interesting historical account of the practice of domain tasting, whereby priveleged parties register huge number of expiring domain names and sample their traffic to determine their value, usually determined by monetizing the traffic using AdWords. Unsuspecting vistors find themselves at a destination designed to direct them to click through an advertisement to find what they were looking for in the first place, and the registrant gets a cut of the action.

Present day “Domain Tasting” has its roots in 2001 and 2002 when a small group of ambitious domain registrants persuaded two registrars …to allow them to register large blocks of domain names for the purpose of establishing which names garnered type-in traffic and then subsequently deleting those which didn’t.

While this practice was quickly closed down, in 2004 a change in how DNS works allowed such “tasting” practices to function again, and this time much more effectively:

The paid search market in 2004 and beyond was much more mature than in 2001, so higher advertising pay-rates drove down “keep” thresholds. Rather than keeping .01% of names, registrants were keeping significantly more. Higher type-in visitor (direct navigation) traffic counts increased the profit potential and allowed more registrants and registrars to participate in the game; significantly driving up registration volumes (kept registrations)…. This surprise increase in registration volume and profits caused the registries to tacitly support domain tasting this second-time around.

So we have a 2 tier system where a few folks with special rights can exploit an arguably public resource (the domain registry) which has contributed to it being practically impossible to find a decent domain name that is not registered already, and also forced millions of “web spam” pages to be created for the purpose of encouraging advertising clickthroughs. Seem unfair to the average internet user? Well it gets better:

The irony is that names which are kept, only get-kept because they have marginal traffic. If these names were not registered, the traffic would still exist, but rather than flow to the registrant of the domain name, the traffic would default to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Browser or Google’s Firefox toolbar or some other search browser helper. Every day Microsoft and Google make money selling error traffic from inactive URLs that come in via browser application.

Yes thats correct, Microsoft and Google, in addition to domain squatters and tasters, profit from our typos and our instinctive search methods (direct domain typing). The question I pose to the ether: should these practices be allowed?

Here’s an experiment for you: think of something you want information on but instead of searching in Google just type in the logical domain name for it. I bet you’ll stumble upon one of these sites…it took me 2 tries, the first domain was not registered at all. Is it a violation of my expected privacy if I am a cancer patient and I type in cancerpatient-dot-com and I am presented with a site full of advertising? I don’t know but it sure doesn’t provide any value. Thanks a lot Gregg!

Read the fascinating historical account in all its glory here:

There is hope for progressive Canadian governance, perhaps even the environment

December 4th, 2006

Stéphane Dion, former Canadian environment minister, was elected leader of the Liberal Party at a dramatic convention in Montreal. A darkhorse candidate, Mr. Dion does not come off as a typical politician rather he retains much of the style and demeanor of the university professor he once was.

For a Liberal party rocked by scandals and withered by subsequent funding issues, this is as good a result as was possible: Dion brings an strikingly honest passion and an earnestness which is rare in politicians and should serve well to renew the image of the party. He also threatens to bring some much needed transparency into political processes, something which no doubt will meet with much resistance by the establishment.

There is no question in my mind that we need a progressive, evolutionary government to deal with a fast changing world. Dion’s platform seems to be with the times, although I want to learn more about his stance on intellectual property issues. With a no longer progressive Conservative Party, and the other parties lacking the experience and breadth of support required, our best short-term hope for Canada’s international leadership on the issues that challenge society now rests with Mr. Dion.

Intelligence 2.0

December 4th, 2006

The NYTimes has an interesting article (login required) about efforts in the US intelligence community to harness the power of “web 2.0” blogs, wikis and social networking in the interest of more efficient collaboration:

New York Times Magazine article describing how intelligence agencies are experimenting with Web 2.0 approaches

Something had gone horribly awry, Burton realized. Theoretically, the intelligence world ought to revolve around information sharing. If F.B.I. agents discover that Al Qaeda fund-raising is going on in Brooklyn, C.I.A. agents in Europe ought to be able to know that instantly. The Internet flourished under the credo that information wants to be free; the agencies, however, had created their online networks specifically to keep secrets safe, locked away so only a few could see them. This control over the flow of information, as the 9/11 Commission noted in its final report, was a crucial reason American intelligence agencies failed to prevent those attacks. All the clues were there — Al Qaeda associates studying aviation in Arizona, the flight student Zacarias Moussaoui arrested in Minnesota, surveillance of a Qaeda plotting session in Malaysia — but none of the agents knew about the existence of the other evidence. The report concluded that the agencies failed to “connect the dots.”

It will be fascinating to see where intelligence agencies find a balance between secrets and sharing, and particularly how the identity and reputation challenges will sort out both for agents and sources. I wonder if Canadian intelligence agencies are paying attention.

See also: The Long Tail blog post: Radical Transparency and National Security.

Freeconomics and the copybot: consequences for intellectual property

November 28th, 2006

Chris Anderson of Long Tail fame “cheekily” coins freeconomics as shorthand for his more recent thesis on “economics of abundance“. (I should mention that he does so with apologies to Freakonomics) Anderson points out how technology that was once scarce is fast becoming a cheap enough commodity to be offered for “free,” with cross-subsidization that is... The economics of abundance are different from those of scarcity in ways that will be recognized by all of us. The rise of Amazon, Netflix, Reality TV and YouTube are examples of the new economics.

In our world of privilege (if you’re reading this you’re part of it) computing power is as widely available as household appliances. Amazingly, the information technology revolution is in its infancy, although it can be hard to realize it when we’re hypnotized on a daily basis by all the pretty lights – they make us think we’re all grown up and in control. No doubt things are moving fast, perhaps too fast for comfort: technology is eroding the frictional barrier to information sharing, and threatening the more “fictional” barrier of intellectual property. Its exciting and scary all at the same time.

We can’t really conceive of where this “information superconductivity” is leading . Our social and legal fabric is understandably maladapted to it. Thankfully folks like Chris, Larry Lessig, Ed Felten, and Danah Boyd among many others, are examining the leading edge of technology driven transformation.

While folks such as Chris, Seth Godin, and Malcolm Gladwell strive to help us understand market dynamics, which tend to generate overwhelming interest in our capitalist economies, some historically less popular subjects have also been under particular pressure, such as telecommunications and intellectual property, particularly copyright and patent law. This challenge comes because information is far more accessible and transmissible, and more people have far more free time than even a few decades ago. What in past centuries used to be roles of privilege, exercising one’s talents as an inventor or a scientist, is an opportunity that is now abundant. What used to be non-obvious is now obvious to many. Most great discoveries or inventions did not happen in isolation, typically they were hotly contested. Inventors and scientists were typically privileged folk standing on the shoulders of giants, also typically privileged. Intellectual property law is built upon past constraints many of which no longer exist, will disappear or be transformed in the coming decade. Imagine what will happen with hundreds of millions of participants in the science and technology arena. Or billions. No-one creates or invents in a vacuum and the model of information as property just doesn’t scale well. We will need a new system to compensate “creators” or we need to accept a Brave New World of draconian rights management.

Recently what existed only as a thought experiment was unleashed in a real but virtual laboratory, the popular MMORPG Second Life. The now infamous “copybot” was unleashed allowing players the Star-Trek-replicator ability to copy creations within the virtual online world. This probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if there wasn’t a real world economy underpinning the virtual economy of SL.

Why do I think this won’t be the last time “Second Life” provides a valuable scenario for real society to deliberate on? Second Life, being a simulated world, already exhibits the kind of information superconductivity which will eventually reach even the most computer-phobic real world denizen.

I wonder if, mirroring the real world effort to create alternative compensation systems for creative works if Linden labs or a group of SL inhabitants with commercial interest will create a replacement, legal copybot with a feature ensuring that the original creator of the copied work gets compensated by the copier…

Visualize This!

November 28th, 2006

Visualization can be a powerful tool, not only for education but also for exploring information and generating new ideas. Hans Rosling from the impressive Gapminder project gives an excellent presentation exposing how powerful visualization tools combined with public domain data could be important drivers of social change.

One of the barriers to this approach, apparently, is that much of the useful data, data which is produced by our tax dollars, is locked up in particular formats or due to special agreements. Or simply not made available. I suppose those involved think that the general population doesn’t want access to the raw data anyway, what on earth could we derive from it? Leave it to Statscan or other government organizations to ask the right questions for the good of society. Their methodology is best anyhow.

If this attitude frustrates you, I highly recommend you watch the following 20 minute presentation. Whether you’re trying to improve your company’s operation, run a non-profit organization, or set government policy, I think many ordinary folk could benefit from such a visualization tool allowing them to easily pose questions of data sets and form new hypotheses:

Such tools and approaches may lead towards a more participatory form of governance, equipping citizens with the ability to provide feedback, based on evidence, into policy making processes.

While I’m on a roll, imagine we furthermore instrument such policies to collect data on their performance post-hoc, creating a feedback cycle allowing us to monitor, measure and adjust. When a new government is voted in then they would be able to make informed decisions about which programs function well and which to cancel, instead of cutting based on partisan politics.

Now that would be transparency of governance.

Intellectual Property absurdisms

November 28th, 2006

There is a gold rush on intellectual property, testing the coherence of IP law. Many are bordering on the absurd, here is an example reported at Techdirt:

more bizarre is the lawsuit the company is facing down in Chile where Microsoft dared to offer a version of its software in the Mapuzugun language used by about 400,000 indigenous Chileans without first getting the permission of Mapuche tribal leaders. The tribal leaders are claiming that this is “intellectual piracy,” though that seems like a rather difficult stance to defend legally. Either way, it suggests just how far the concept of “intellectual property” is permeating, and just how ridiculous the situations that result from its spread are.

The EFF maintains a patent buster site which tracks absurd patent awards. Check it out here. Unfortunately they are very information technology focused whereas I suspect the majority of patents society should be worrying about are happening in the field of genetics and bioengineering.

DMCA exceptions granted

November 27th, 2006

The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a law in the United States which criminalizes technology which circumvents copyright. It has been widely criticized.

Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker reports some exceptions to the DMCA were recently granted:

six exemptions were granted, the most ever:

* Professors can make compilations of film and video material for research or teaching.
* Archivists can preserve copies of old programs and computer games.
* Anyone can work around broken hardware “dongles” that prevent access to software programs.
* Blind people can use software to have e-books read aloud.
* Wireless phone customers can switch their phones to a different wireless provider.
* Anyone can study, test, or remove malware distributed on CDs.

I’m particularly relieved about the provisions for education and wireless device portability. The last provision is good in light of the Sony rootkit debacle. The provision for the blind highlights how ridiculous copyright enforcement can be.

These are good steps but the DMCA still fundamentally fails to recognize the harms that copy protection mechanisms cause and will eventually become a relic representing old ways of thinking about incenting creativity.

Cover this, Hey Ya…

November 20th, 2006

powered by ODEO

Why are music covers and movie remakes so popular? Assuming you can manage to get it out there with all the copyright licensing issues, its much more likely for a new take on an old success to become rapidly popular, so its a much safer investment. The population is already sensitized to the material. If you have talent and can “make it your own” in an interesting and possibly more compelling way (to a different demographic maybe) than the original you may even rewrite history in people’s minds, many music covers are widely considered to be original work: “You Really Got Me” which was Van Halen’s first single from their meteoric debut album was really a hit for the Kinks back in the 60s. We’ve probably all heard it on an oldies radio show but only our parents were there when it first came out.

This re-imagining of musical history can lead to comical situations: the 80’s all stars were “performing” recently at an ultimate tournament and Bobby Brown’s 80s hit “My Prerogative” came on the ghetto blaster. An adorable girl (yes she’s in the photo) squealed: “Omg, somebody already covered Britney Spears?!?!”

If you’re interested the YouTube video which was the key viral vector for the Hey Ya cover, the original is no longer there, presumably due to copyright violation. Intellectual property law has yet to adapt to the rip, mix and burn, viral meme sharing culture, but catch this copy here while you can:

Travel time heatmap visualization

November 14th, 2006

Some very interesting work happening in the UK by mysociety.org studying travel time related to mode of transport (particularly rail versus car).

MySociety.org Travel Time Visualization

I really hope such studies will happen in North America, I suspect it would highlight where it would be efficient to invest in rail infrastructure for commuter and cargo shipping purposes.

It also reminds me of projects using cell phone signals to estimate traffic in real time, which is a clever idea but raises some privacy concerns…