May 31, 2012

Saving the Internet, Ourselves, and the Future

Since its birth as the U.S. Department of Defense ARPANET research project, the Internet has faced various threats -- some technical, some in the policy realm, and some purely political.

Recently we've seen the SOPA and PIPA legislation. Make no mistake about it -- the Hollywood content giants have not given up on their desires to reshape the Internet in their own traditional images.

We now face CISPA and its cyber-scaremongering, with cyberwar profiteering threatening to undermine decades of privacy protection legislation.

Everything in the vast repertoire of mankind is finding its way onto the Net in various guises, from wonders sublime and beautiful, to horrors of the most crass and demeaning.

There are marvels of generosity, cooperation and good will to be found all over the Net.

But there is also blatant exploitation by those who see the Internet and its technologies merely as a "gold rush" to be exploited, the best interests of the community at large be damned -- organizations explicitly entrusted with the well-being of the Net sometimes joining the dark side in the enablement of obscene profits.

Our overall unwillingness -- especially as technologists -- to "play the game" the way the "big boys" play has allowed entities with less than admirable motives to gain sway over many aspects of the Net.

In the U.S., net neutrality and service quality have languished as a few dominant ISPs have reached their pinnacles through exploitation of original monopoly grants, cherry picking deployments of broadband, and outright lying to communities -- not to mention outright political chicanery to help kill off effective competition.

We have allowed relatively minor issues such as arguments about Web cookies to become political pawns, diverting us while governments plan and deploy vast schemes to control and censor the Internet, turning the Net from a tool that could greatly enhance individual rights, into a mechanism to muzzle and control.

Fear that efforts to find new, innovative ways to solve the Net's problems might not succeed, have resulted in a continuing panicked embrace of organizations and policies of demonstrated failures, creating ever broadening wedges between the wide variety of Internet stakeholders around the planet.

And now, as the United Nations (UN) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) contemplate a horrific takeover of many aspects of the Internet [Vint Cerf Congressional Testimony {PDF}], we reap what we have sowed through our long complacency and unwillingness to use all tools at our disposal to fight for Internet freedoms.

We may yet still have time to turn the tide for many of these issues. But every day the odds loom larger against us, and the image of Don Quixote stabbing uselessly at windmills is increasingly difficult to banish from one's mind.

When I started working on the ARPANET decades ago, most of the other students at UCLA were confined to using keypunches and IBM punch cards.

I've watched as computational power that used to fill rooms has been vastly outstripped by a tiny box hanging on my belt, and even smaller devices still.

Communications capabilities hardly even dreamed of decades ago are now commonplace. Even the masters of classical science fiction mostly had a blind spot to coming technological magic like smartphones and other personal communications devices.

To see so much of what we have jointly created being put at risk today, for the sake of government suppression and the almighty dollar, is frankly nothing short of being quintessentially depressing.

I'm not one of those persons who had an organized "plan" for my life. I never intended to become deeply involved in technology policy issues as I am now, and I morphed into that role gradually from a more traditional code hacking environment.

In retrospect, I might well have been happier if I had stayed more completely in the software engineering realm. Conceptual "satisfaction" seems much easier to derive from deployed system metrics than from seemingly intractable public policy dilemmas.

And yet, one does what one can, and I've endeavored to be scrupulously honest in the process. Over the years my various attempts at commentary and analysis have at one time or another upset just about all points on the spectrum. Perhaps this means I've struck an appropriate balance in the long run. Perhaps it means I struck out entirely. All I've ever tried to do in these regards is call the issues as I see them, suggest where I thought matters were awry and how they might be improved, and let folks make their own judgments.

But as the saying goes, all that plus a dollar will buy you a cup of cheap coffee these days.

The future will look back on what we're doing now -- right now -- towards protecting Internet freedoms. They may peer back with gratitude for what we achieved, or they may curse us in our graves for opportunities lost.

That aspect of the future is still ultimately under our control, today.

I grew up along with the Internet, and I like to think helping it in my own small ways -- watching it evolve into the technology infrastructure and communications foundation of the world.

We are now at a moment, a crossroad in history and time, where the decisions we make about the Internet, and its importance to our lives and freedoms, will have lasting effects for many years, decades, or perhaps far longer.

Will the Internet be sucked completely into the pit of oppression, censorship, and greed, or will we have the moral fortitude to say, "No! Not to our Internet. Not to what we worked so long and hard to achieve in the name of freedom, humanity, and community."

Quixotic or not, the quest for the best possible Internet for everyone is an effort in which I've been honored to be engaged. To lose this battle, this war, is potentially to lose so much else that will matter to your children, and to their children, and potentially to many more generations yet to come.

It's about so much more than bits and bytes, disks and fiber, CPUs and JavaScript. The Internet is humanity. We are the Internet.

If we lose the Internet, we lose ourselves.

Take care, all. And thanks.


Posted by Lauren at 05:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Strong disappointment with Google's implicit endorsement of ICANN's gTLD expansion

A posting today in the Official Google Blog discusses Google's participation in the ICANN gTLD expansion program.

It is signed by Vint Cerf, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts he was "drafted" into signing onto this corporate statement. It is very carefully worded, but still has the effect of implicitly endorsing ICANN's essentially extortionist TLD scheme. It is obvious that Google could not ignore this process, and needed to at least apply for TLDs that represent its various products, services, and trademarks.

Still, I believe this statement went too far into effectively endorsing a corrupt process, after ICANN's outgoing CEO himself declared that the ICANN board of directors was rife with relevant conflict of interests.

This situation is made all the more dangerous since ICANN's abusive behavior in these regards is a driving force pushing many countries to propose UN/ITU control of the Internet, which would be disastrous and that most technology leaders (including Google) have been wisely opposing.

My writings on the problems with ICANN's TLD approach and the need for alternatives go back many years, and can be found most easily through this search.

More later as appropriate.


Posted by Lauren at 11:36 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 26, 2012

How the Internet Can Save the World

Turkey's President Abdullah Gül and his wife were making the rounds of Silicon Valley over recent days, visiting Stanford, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and more.

A photo from the Google visit especially caught my attention. It showed the President and Mrs. Gül with Google's Sergey Brin, in one of the Google autonomous vehicles. It seems readily apparent that the President was enjoying the experience.

I've been uncharacteristically at something of a loss for words as to how to describe my sense of that photo, and the way that President Gül documented his Northern California visit as would many other modern tourists today -- via Twitter.

A fascination with hi-tech, not just self-driving cars and Internet microblogging but across a very wide spectrum, tends to be worldwide, and (with some notable exceptions) to cut across political, economic, and even many religious barriers.

And therein resides a possible key to saving the world, if we can prevent our own governments from getting in the way.

I can distinctly remember decades ago, the first time I communicated with someone in another country over the Internet from UCLA -- actually back then on the ancestor Defense Department ARPANET -- via a noisy mechanical ASR-33 Teletype. In the process of trying to debug a network-related problem over a TALK link (what we'd call a "chat" today) I found myself typing back and forth with a member of the Norwegian Air Force. I entered my messages slowly (these devices were limited to about 10 characters a second) on thick plastic keys spinning innumerable gears inside the machine, and his replies printed in a ragged line of all uppercase letters on the unwinding yellow paper.

We talked about the network problems. We talked about the rooms we were in. And the weather. And our pets.

And after we closed down the link, I stared at the paper for a bit, the loud motor in the teletype still spinning away, and considered what might happen to the world if such communications were commonplace rather than exceptional, if we could communicate with people around the planet without having to worry about relatively enormous per-minute telephone charges and limited circuit capacities.

At the time, the broad availability of such networking technologies appeared quite distant. But it was a thought I've long remembered.

Now of course, the modern Internet has banished the concept of distance in terms of communications. On Google+, or Facebook, or wherever, you may find yourself chatting (increasingly not only by text, but with audio and video as well) with persons that in any other context or earlier time you'd probably never have known or talked with in any way.

This is the golden age of global communications, a time when ordinary people almost anywhere in the world have or will likely soon gain the capability of dealing directly with counterparts in other countries, other cultures, with an array of different lifestyles and circumstances.

The question is, how long will this freedom be permitted to exist?

When people have the easy and inexpensive means to communicate directly, especially in informal settings and about the everyday aspects of life, they usually discover that they have much more in common than they perhaps expected. This seems true whether we're using written communications, or audio and video links like Skype or Google+ Hangouts -- working our way ever closer toward a full "virtual presence" that makes our common humanity impossible to ignore.

And frankly, I believe that such capabilities genuinely worry some governments around the world, for whom maintaining a certain level of "us vs. them" sensibilities is considered crucial to their control regimes.

I wouldn't assert that all governmental attempts to censor and otherwise control the Internet are necessarily aimed at oppression or making wars somehow more palatable -- or don't in some cases have at least understandable rationales.

But ultimately, regardless of whether Internet restrictions are described in terms of security concerns, religious matters, moral convictions, or any of many other categories, the simple fact is that overall, maximal communications between people around the world, while not necessarily always favorable for any particular governments, is very much in the best interests of the global community at large.

I spend much of my time considering the ways in which the wonders of the Internet could be wrecked, or blocked, or subverted. But it's also important that we consider the vast potential the Net holds for improving the world in the most relevant and important of ways.

Not just in terms of science and research, though those are great. Not just in regard to commerce and the global economy, though these are crucial.

But also in terms of the basic fact of fundamental human communications, of being able to as freely and openly as possible discuss with other mere mortals around the planet the nature of our lives, hopes and dreams, our loves, and yes, our fears as well.

Personal communications capabilities of these sorts, enabled by technology in general and the Internet in particular, have more potential to save the world in the long run than do all the governments on the globe.


Posted by Lauren at 07:05 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 23, 2012

A Perfect Storm: How Government Will Dictate Your Search Results

The vast scope of the Internet makes search engines, such as Google, Bing, and others, crucial aspects of our ability to locate and access information on the Net. After all, if we can't find particular information, if perhaps we don't even know that it exists, it for all practical purposes may not realistically exist for most of us.

To be genuinely useful, most natural (that is organic, non-paid placement) search results from general-purpose search engines must represent a form of opinions, in this case opinions driven by algorithms that are created, refined, and tuned by human beings.

Any time information is ranked by a search engine, rather than (for instance) simply being listed alphabetically as in a telephone directory, algorithmic value judgments are being applied, and since by definition not everyone will achieve the top rankings, there will almost always be some parties disappointed in the ranking outcomes.

The never-ending quest for search quality, which we can reasonably define as the effort to return the most relevant and useful search results for any given query by any given user, is immensely complex, and what's more, involves counteracting actively hostile players who continually attempt to "game" the system through various "black hat" SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques and related ploys.

Bottom line: This is complicated stuff.

But for all of the complexity, and even given the fact that most of the hard work and technological "magic" of search ranking occurs behind the scenes for users, I believe it's fair to say that most people feel that the search results they get from Bing, or Google, or most other search engines, are of quite high quality and objective in nature.

This is only logical. Any search engine, no matter how large, is still only a click away from its competitors. A search engine that did not meet the expectations and needs of its users will find itself abandoned in short order. The users must come first.

Unfortunately, a perfect storm of forces is converging on the Internet in ways that represent an enormous censorship risk to users' abilities to obtain search results free from government interference.

In fact, we appear to be rapidly moving toward a possible future where governments around the world will demand to micromanage the search results for effectively all search engines, potentially creating an information control regime of an oppressive nature never before seen.

And naturally, all of this will happen with governments arguing that the crackdowns are all "for the good of the people."

There are multiple origins of these pressures for governments to dictate search engine results.

The security - cybersecurity - political realm is increasingly a factor.

Governments around the world are arguing that search results should be censored to "hide" information that specific governments consider to be dangerous, objectionable, blasphemous, embarrassing, or simply just inconvenient. [CISPA, Cybersecurity, and the Devil in the Dark]

A similar category includes firms and individuals who are unhappy with information regarding them on various Web sites, and desire that search engines remove/censor links that would allow people to easily find those sites during searches. Attempts to codify such desires under the umbrella term "right to be forgotten" are especially prevalent in Europe. [The "Right to Be Forgotten": A Threat We Dare Not Forget]

Also currently focused in Europe, but also in other areas of the world as well, including here in the U.S., are the calls for the nebulous (and I would argue, logically specious) concept of "search neutrality" -- most often invoked now against Google, despite Google's statements (and empirical evidence easily duplicated by most any Web surfer) that Google's natural search results are kept as scrupulously fair as is technologically possible across the enormous scope of the Web. ["Search Neutrality" and Propaganda Deluxe]

And the list goes on.

Taken individually, various of these arguments for search engine censorship and associated government control over search results, may appear to have ostensibly positive motives in some specific cases.

But even if we take that as a given for the sake of the argument, we need to look beyond the individual cases to the combined impact that embarking on a search engine censorship/government information control regime would entail. Because the unavoidable outcome would appear to be virtually total control of search engines by governments, and human history suggests that information control is a power with which no government can be trusted, however altruistic any given government may appear to be at any particular moment in time.

A key reason for this relates to what I've in the past called "Woody Allen's Einstein Argument."

In 1967's spy spoof "Casino Royale," Woody Allen's comedic evil character has this verbal exchange with a captured character played by Daliah Lavi:

Lavi: You're crazy. You are absolutely crazy!
Allen: They called Einstein crazy.
Lavi: That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy.
Allen: Well, they would have if he carried on like this.

In other words, it is always possible to postulate actions or intents that are not in evidence.

Regardless of what a firm says about how they're ranking search results, or protecting data, or ... whatever ... it is always possible to suggest they're lying, or that yes, they're honest today but maybe they'll be lying tomorrow! Or maybe they're not evil this year but will turn to the dark side within five years, or ...

Such arguments, of a sort that have become all too common now in our perverse and polarized political environment, lead us away from demonstrable reality, not toward it.

And if you refuse to trust these firms' pronouncements and intentions, what is the alternative? Do you really want to put the micromanagement of search results and determining what information is or is not available, into the hands of politicians? Have we learned nothing at all from history, about how even wonderful political intentions can become adulterated over time?

The commercial search engines like Google and Bing have an obvious self-interest in playing the game honestly. Their users can click away at any time. This is a powerful incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, even beyond basic ethical considerations.

Frankly, I have much more faith in Google, or Bing, or even Facebook in these regards, than I would have for government edicts concerning search engine results or other information control regimes.

Once a government, any government, gets its hands deeply into search engine algorithms and search results, politicians' natural tendencies to ever expand their reach will be irresistible. They will go ever deeper. They will not willingly ever let go. They will have dramatic arguments about why their control is for the sake of the community, but in the end they will crush the life out of information freedom nonetheless.

And don't feel too confident that courts will protect these freedoms.

Google -- correctly -- argues that search results are protected by the U.S. First Amendment, but there are many reasons to suspect that inflated claims of national security concerns, "protect the innocent from the nasty Internet" arguments, and international agreements/treaty obligations could still lead to pervasive government control and censorship of search engine results -- not only just here in the U.S., but around much of the globe.

Of course, the sad truth is that there are many persons who would very much like to see the world of government-controlled search engines come to pass as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

And if this does occur, in the future you may not even be able to find again this very posting that you're reading at this very moment.

Thanks for reading it now -- while you still can.


Posted by Lauren at 11:02 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 20, 2012

"50 Ways to Wreck the Network" - With Apologies to Paul Simon

"50 Ways to Wreck the Network"
To the tune of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"
With apologies to Paul Simon.

MP3 Audio Performance (3:24 minutes / ~3.1 MB)

Lyrics Copyright © 2012 Lauren Weinstein. All rights reserved.

The problem is I worry too much,
I pondered one dark day.
But this Internet policy stuff,
Is so confused in every way.

It's as if somebody
Just wanted to take it all away.
There must be 50 ways to wreck the network.

It seemed Net speech was pretty free,
It was quite chill.
But now governments and Hollywood
Are circling for the kill.
And the Web is slipping into space
Where freedoms are quite nil.
There must be 50 ways to wreck the network.
50 ways to wreck the network.

Just block the whole site, Mike.
Go censor the file, Kyle.
Now spy on the mail, Dale.
And you're on your way

Do a bandwidth cap, Jack.
Takedowns in mass, Ash.
Steal the crypto key, Lee.
And watch the geeks flee.

Just ban the whole site, Mike.
Now censor the file, Kyle.
Go spy on the mail, Dale.
Who needs to be free?

Do the bandwidth cap, Jack
Takedowns in mass, Ash.
Steal the crypto key, Lee,
And watch them all flee.

There's ICANN's domain scam,
Cyber-scaremongers, too.
There are people blaming Web cookies
for everything but the flu.
It makes you wonder if folks realize,
how much they really have to lose.
There must be 50 ways to wreck the network.

So many leaders seem bought out
Or without clue.
And I thought to myself,
The title of this song isn't quite true.
When you start to think about it,
You can really get to feeling blue.
There's actually more than 50 ways to wreck the network.
More than 50 ways to wreck the network.

Do a DOS attack, Jack.
Go rip off the cert, Bert
Block the TLD, Lee.
Charge your usual fee.

Tear the servers apart, Art.
Downloaders in jail, Dale.
Screw the due process, Les.
Assume they're guilty!

Great DOS attack, Jack.
Ripped off the cert, Bert.
Blocked the TLD, Lee.
Charge your usual fee.

Rip the servers apart, Art.
Downloaders in jail, Dale.
Screw the due process, Les.
We won you see!

- - -


Posted by Lauren at 09:30 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 19, 2012

The Somewhat Strange Saga of Twitter's New Tracking

You may have noticed an array of articles in the media last week proclaiming that Twitter is now supporting the "Do Not Track" Internet browser initiative.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was talking about it. Even the White House blogged about this yesterday.

Regular readers may know that I've become rather dubious regarding the essential value of "Do Not Track" as currently being envisioned and implemented (e.g. Do-Not-Track, Doctor Who, and a Constellation of Confusion), particularly as this is frequently entwined with the senseless "demonization" of Web cookies (Google, Safari, and a Clamor of Cookie Confusion).

Just yesterday we heard about a $15 billion dollar class action lawsuit against Facebook, related to cookies and tracking. Now, I'm most definitely no friend of Facebook -- I refuse to even use them other than maintaining placeholder accounts -- but this lawsuit appears to be ludicrous, blatant litigation abusive opportunism in action.

My view on cookies in this context is fairly simple. I find it disingenuous to attack cookie usage when no actual, purposeful, or significant privacy-related harm to users has occurred.

Which brings us back to Twitter and Do Not Track.

With all the talk of Twitter now supporting Do Not Track, I wonder how many people stopped to think, "Wait a minute, what is Twitter tracking in the first place for which Do Not Track is even relevant?"

The focus on Do Not Track had the effect of de-emphasizing the fact that Twitter has now begun to deploy a broad, cross-site tracking regime, which will track and correlate your visits to non-Twitter sites that include (for example) Twitter-related buttons or other elements, as part of new system to make Twitter follower suggestions and provide additional upcoming features.

In other words, Twitter's new embrace of Do Not Track is in conjunction with default enabled, cookie-based tracking that they weren't doing at all up to now, a fact that was not highlighted (or in some cases even mentioned) in most of those stories and articles about Twitter last week.

Now personally, I feel that Twitter itself is handling this in a responsible way. Twitter has provided various mechanism to opt-out of their new cross-site tracking. You can use the browser Do Not Track mechanism if you wish (though I continue to consider that suboptimal for various reasons). You can opt-out via your Twitter profile. You can log out of Twitter (this stops tracking until you log back in). Twitter also says they will start deleting your detailed tracking data after about 10 days from collection. Twitter has also been proactive telling people about this, sending out email notifications.

So I have no problem with the functional structure of Twitter's new tracking system itself.

Still, it is very similar in essence to the sorts of tracking systems for which Google, Facebook, and others have been criticized. Twitter's system, like those others, is opt-out in nature rather than opt-in, though in reality this distinction is much less clear-cut and much more complex than most people assume (see Opt-In Dystopias).

It is understandable that promoters of Do Not Track chose to emphasize that aspect of Twitter's announcement, rather than the new tracking system that Twitter is deploying.

And again, I think that Twitter is handling their new initiative in a responsible manner.

Yet I do feel that it is important for us to understand the essential commonalities in these systems, whether from Twitter, Google, Facebook, or anyone else. We should not be playing "litigation gotcha," with fundamentally innocent cookie issues being warped into weapons -- to try extract massive fines and settlements -- when no genuine harm was done to users in the first place.

Ultimately, all the technical details of cookies and JavaScript and the alphabet soup of Web protocols aside, our use of the Internet is based largely on the trust we place in firms to handle our data responsibly.

Whenever I say this, I frequently receive responses that assert, "They're all the same! They're all crooks! None of them can be trusted!"

But this is all demonstrably not the case. Different firms have different management and ethical sensibilities, and attempts to paint them all with the same brush are not only simplistic, but just plain wrong as well.

Of course, it's our individual judgments as to whom to believe, whom to trust, and which firms we choose to patronize. That's true in the Internet world just as in our "brick and mortar" lives away from these display screens.

At the very least, we should strive for these choices to be based on reality rather than conjecture, to be the result of reason and not of reckless rage.

Otherwise, no matter how much false satisfaction we might feel for now, we're all the long-run losers.


Posted by Lauren at 10:30 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 14, 2012

Google, Governments, and the Control of Search Results

A pair of Google-commissioned papers, one released just today, have triggered considerable controversy relating to ongoing antitrust investigations of Google by various regulators, including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the European Commission.

The first of these reports explores issues of First Amendment protections as applied to search results, the latter examines various proposed "remedies" for the supposed "search bias" of which Google has been accused by some parties.

These are both relatively long, rather legalistically focused documents, and there have been complaints regarding their having been commissioned by Google itself.

Those complaints seem specious. The facts described by these reports are public record, open for everyone to see. The analysis presented in both will either stand or fall based on their own content, irrespective of who paid for their creation.

Perhaps of more concern is the fact that most of us aren't lawyers, and the majority of observers probably will not have the patience to dig through those detailed documents in their entirety.

So let's see if we can cut to the chase.

Why does Google exist? Or more to the point, if you use Google services -- and you probably do -- why do you do so? What are you (not in terms of topics, but in terms of your experience as a user) looking for when you use Google Search?

I believe it's appropriate to focus on Google Search here, rather than the range of other Google services. While Search is but one aspect of an increasingly interrelated palette of Google-provided services, Search tends to be the center of attention both for users and critics of Google.

It's popular in some quarters (particularly among Google's various adversaries), to refer to Google as a "monopoly," but this is demonstrably a false characterization by any normal definition of the word.

In fact, just a few days ago, a "Slate" author noted how trivially easy it was to switch from Google Search to Microsoft's Bing, and that he found the search results from Bing to generally be quite similar to those he obtained from Google.

So this brings us to the Search Results themselves.

Google's mission statement is well known: "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Yet have you ever really stopped to consider what "useful" actually means on the enormous and rapidly expanding Web?

There are many sources of "information" on the Internet.

If you simply want to look up the names and address of local merchants, you can use various "white pages" sites or other directories. If you're more interested in the additional data that paid advertising brings to your decision-making process, there are "yellow pages" sites, and a range of other directory sites for that purpose as well.

But when you go to a general purpose search engine, like Bing, or Google, or one of the many others, you're either explicitly or implicitly almost always looking for opinions or answers.

*Opinions* -- opinions in terms of the search engine's recommendations about which sites will most usefully meet the criteria of your search, and the key word here is very much *usefully*. For when looking at organic (natural, non-ad) search results listings, you're almost always actually seeking an appraisal, an opinion, not a simple directory listing per se.

That's what Google and Bing (to name just two) try to accomplish. They attempt to provide useful opinions about which sites on the Net will be most useful to answer your query, or when your query is such that a direct answer can be provided, to offer that result directly for your convenience, as well as a list of recommended sites for relevant additional perusal.

This is the very essence of providing the best user experience. This is the goal, what these sites are actually all about.

And succeeding at this complex task, by definition, involves value judgments -- opinions. In this case, opinions and judgments made by complex algorithms, constantly being tweaked to make sense of the essentially infinite range of possible combinations and Internet destinations, not to mention accomplishing the enormous task of weeding out spam, phishing sites, and sites trying to unfairly "game" the system through various forms of subterfuge.

Understanding these efforts by search engines -- not only by Google -- to provide genuinely *useful* search results is important toward recognizing why demands for nebulous and dangerous concepts such as "search neutrality" make no sense, and would be utterly disastrous to users.

Because "search neutrality" would literally represent -- one way or another -- the government dictating the opinions of search engines, micromanaging search results, and inevitably morphing search engines from providers of useful answers and recommendations, into "fend for yourself" directories and listing services.

In fact, the concept of compulsory "neutrality" is effectively contradictory to the candid presentation of opinions. Honest opinions are almost never neutral. It's like the old Soviet Union, where you were free to publicly and impotently espouse any opinions you wished, so long as they were identical to the formal party line.

Trying to enforce "neutrality" in search results means that algorithmically evolved judgments to usefully order sites for the best query results become forbidden -- resulting in a chaos of lost confidence at the hands of government associated "search purity" bureaucrats.

To make information *useful*. That's the goal of Google, and Bing, and the many other sites that index the Internet in various ways. There are many choices, many options, many opinions, innumerable points of view.

Concepts such as "search neutrality" would be a death knell to genuinely useful, reliable, and trustworthy search results, and provide the government with an unprecedented ability to control the presentation of Internet information as it sees fit, now and into the future.

Personally, I very much prefer to have search results decisions in the hands of Google, and Bing, and the other organizations whose agenda is providing maximally *useful* information for the global community of Internet users.

Enforced "search neutrality" could easily mean the end of search as we know it, and the beginning of a broad, encompassing, government-mandated Internet information control dominion.

That's my opinion, anyway.


Posted by Lauren at 09:12 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 07, 2012

Torches, Pitchforks, and Google Privacy

Quickly! How is President Obama's birth certificate like discussing Google privacy issues? Got it yet? Still thinking? Sorry, time's up!

The answer is -- regardless of how logically and rationally you approach either of these topic areas -- there are people who insist on forcing fetid fairy dust into the discussion, invoking a range of "what if" and conspiracy scenarios suitable for late night cable TV viewing.

I should know better by now. Really I should.

Someone (probably not Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain -- despite what you may have heard -- but possibly mystery writer Rita Mae Brown) once said that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

By that rather clinically problematic definition, maybe I should have joined the tea table with the Mad Hatter long ago. Clean cups! Clean cups!

I keep attempting to discuss privacy topics with a rather cold logic that might earn praise from the Vulcan Science Academy, but some of the reactions I get seem to be straight out of Clown College.

No, wait. That isn't being fair to clowns. Not at all.

I'll put it another way.

My posting from last Saturday -- How "Privacy Correctness" Is Leading Us Dangerously Astray -- generated a range of responses.

Many of these were thoughtful indeed, on all sides of the relevant arguments. This seems completely appropriate. It isn't chopped liver we're talking about, these are complicated issues involving "bleeding-edge" aspects of society, philosophy, and technology. There are no easy answers. This is hard stuff, and reasonable people can be expected to disagree in significant ways regarding these subjects.

Yet what can throw you for a loop is when you receive rants that cause one to question whether or not we're all currently even living on the same planet.

It seems that whenever privacy issues are invoked, especially any that involve Google, there are folks out in the Internet ether who immediately start dousing torches with kerosene and sharpening their pitchfork prongs for maximal effect. And we know what usually follows in the next scene.

A great deal of this -- what I will tactfully label as overenthusiasm -- is likely the direct result of misinformation about the underlying reality of how these complex technologies and systems work, blended with a strong dose of emotion.

I'm also forced to somewhat cynically suspect that various other aspects of the dramatically illogical reactions -- in some cases, anyway -- are calculated specifically to damage any parties who dare express views not in compliance with the privacy "party line," and perhaps also to keep some groups' funding tills teeming.

Still, much of the village mob contingent is seemingly being driven by human nature, and (very likely, I'd assert) by the overall radicalization and coarsening of discourse in our ever more toxic political environment.

So the arrays of associated obscene diatribes inflating my inbox shouldn't be a surprise, even as they are disappointing.

Again, these topics are difficult, and important. They are very much in need of exposition and spirited dialogue.

But frankly, the time I spend on these issues does not improve my health nor good looks, and definitely doesn't help to pay the bills.

I will not engage with anyone who is unable or unwilling to show a minimum of common courtesy.

Agree or disagree with my stands on the issues as you will. I would hope for no less. But if you can't be civil, if you can't be rational, if you're going to insist on spiking your communiques with the sort of nonsensical, fallacious filth that has become all too common in the political realm, I will treat your messages in the same manner in which I dispose of spam, frauds, phishes, and unsolicited holiday fruitcakes.

On the other hand, I most certainly welcome the opportunity to work with anyone who is seriously interested in these matters -- so cogent contacts and reasoned discussion are always appreciated.

And you don't even need to show your birth certificate.

Isn't that a relief?


Posted by Lauren at 09:34 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 05, 2012

How "Privacy Correctness" Is Leading Us Dangerously Astray

You're probably familiar with the term "politically correct" and its ramifications. Simply stated, "political correctness" relates to the narrowing of discussions, often by focusing on specific examples of "violations" (in a range of circumstances) that in reality do not have notable intrinsic, relevant, or significant impacts.

Political correctness can be purposely used as a weapon to manipulate debates, or it can be the result of genuine confusion regarding the actual facts of a situation. Frequently, political correctness issues involve both of these facets.

As we look at the almost daily parade of supposed "privacy problems" that splash across the Web and other media, followed by calls for investigations, massive fines, and sometimes large-scale governmental interventions -- a fundamental question arises.

To what extent are we concerned about actual, important, substantive privacy concerns, and conversely, to what degree are we engaging in -- perhaps to coin a phrase in this context -- unwise, counterproductive, manipulative, and even potentially dangerous "privacy correctness."

At first glance, it might appear that the seeming sheer complexity of the technology surrounding privacy these days would make such determinations difficult.

Cookies and Flash, JavaScript and AJAX, encryption and targeted ads. And so on. How can anyone be expected to untangle all this in terms of privacy concerns?

In reality though, the complex nature of these technologies -- many of which are key to providing and helping to pay for services that users have come to expect, usually without charge -- offers a clue that we may be spending our time looking in the wrong places.

One thing we can be absolutely sure about is that new, even more complex technologies -- many of which may have privacy-related ramifications -- will be arriving almost continually. To assume that everyday users of the Web and other environments will have the time or inclination to understand the functioning and external relationships of these underlying mechanisms seems unrealistic at best.

In fact, as we've seen in recent cases involving Google and their use of Web cookies and collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi data , even hard-core techies and experts on these systems may at times become enmeshed in "privacy correctness" quandaries, with various forces insisting that particular actions represent serious privacy violations, while other observers see only insignificant transgressions or none at all.

Cookies and Wi-Fi have been around for many years. What of new technologies coming down the line? Are we going to go through these battles individually and repeatedly, expecting consumers to incorporate such ever more intricate complexities in their various combinations into their routine Internet usage decisions?

And what of the impacts that considerations of genuine privacy concerns, vis-à-vis "privacy correctness," will have on issues of great import to society at large, such as calls for vast communications surveillance regimes, expansive cybersecurity legislation, and so on?

There are some guidelines that I use in my own analysis of these issues today, that may be generally useful in these respects.

First, like it or not, what's public is public. I say this a lot, and many people don't really like the idea, but that doesn't change the underlying truth.

It is foolhardy to pretend that something already out in the public sphere, especially (but not necessarily) on the Internet, can then somehow be effectively restricted or controlled. Trying to convince people otherwise is quintessential "privacy correctness" and can dangerously lead to false assumptions about what information is or is not actually available publicly.

Efforts to restrict information that is already public, ranging from governmental data, to photographs easily taken from municipal streets, to unencrypted Wi-Fi signals, can only serve to harass legitimate and innocent usage, while "bad players" will find ways to continue essentially unencumbered. Public is public. Period.

But what about data that isn't public, that has been shared with individual entities perhaps? This is the category that sheds light on what I would call true privacy problems, in contrast to generally false "privacy correctness" issues.

Except where absolutely mandated by law, when personal information provided to or collected by one organization is sold or otherwise provided to another organization without the explicit permissions of the persons involved, a significant privacy violation may well have occurred.

Health information, financial transaction data, communications addressing and contents, Web search activities, and so on -- these are all types of data that users have a right to expect will routinely stay in the hands of the entities they've chosen to trust. Genuine violations of that trust, allowing user data to flow to third parties without user permissions or valid court orders, can be devastating to users and ultimately to the organizations involved as well.

On the other hand, cavil complaints about complex Web cookie handling, especially in the course of providing services that users have requested, and in the face of contradictory and confusing technical specifications, appears to fall squarely back into the realm of disingenuous "privacy correctness" machinations.

I mentioned trust earlier. In the final analysis, trust is a cardinal aspect of our dealings in all aspects of our lives, online and offline.

On the Internet, on the Web, if we trust the organizations that we've chosen to patronize -- whether we're paying for their services or not -- it makes little sense to endlessly engage in an attempted micromanagement of their underlying cookies, JavaScript, or other rapidly evolving technologies, or to play a fundamentally exploitative form of "gotcha" when technical lapses occur that do not have actual privacy-damaging characteristics as I noted above.

And if you don't trust a firm enough to accept this, perhaps you should consider taking your business elsewhere. If you insist on assuming that most Web businesses are fundamentally evil, and can't be trusted regardless of how well behaved they are today, then perhaps you should consider, for your own peace of mind, not using the Internet at all.

Or, we can endeavor to see beyond the specious premises of "privacy correctness," and concentrate instead on actual, genuine privacy problems that are deserving of our serious attention.

What may seem at first to be "correct" -- isn't always right.


Posted by Lauren at 11:31 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 04, 2012

Al Capone's Ghost Congratulates ICANN

X-Ethereal-From: Alphonse Gabriel Capone
X-Date: Fri 4 May 2012 20:02 ZDT
X-To: ICANN (Marina del Rey, California, U.S.A., Terra, DIM489Q94-0003)
X-Subject: Congratulations on your great work!


I know that this letter will come to you as something of a surprise, given that we don't know each other, and I ceased my corporeal existence over 60 years ago.

I don't get many chances to write, but I was able to obtain permission this time so that I could congratulate you all on a job well done!

Back when I was alive, I was very interested in finding ways to turn new inventions and technology into quick money. Many of the techniques I chose may not have been entirely legit, I'll admit, but you guys have exceeded anything in my wildest imagination, and completely legal, too!

You can guess by now that I'm referring to your announcement today that your fantastic Internet gTLD top-level domain name racket had raked in more than a third of a billion dollars! Even with inflation from my day, that's a hell of a take, and you haven't even collected all the payments, and this is all with your application system still broken after a month! Amazing!

Yes, I've been watching your wonderful activities for quite sometime!

I know you're probably unaware that we have fairly good Internet access service here now. We recently switched over to using the DTN (Delay-Tolerant Networking) protocols designed for outer space projects, since typical delays to us are, shall we say, even more of a hassle.

I've gotta tell you though, if you boys had been around Chicago when I was in my prime, we might have had a serious competition going.

You know I made a lot of money, most of it from booze but quite a bit also from the girls and gambling and "protection" we could provide. OK, I also bought a lot of milk for school kids and opened up soup kitchens and such. I'm a family man at heart.

But you're putting me to shame. 350 thousand thousand dollars, plus! I think about all the meals for the needy and health care and other things your depressed 21st century economy needs, and you've still managed to suck all that dough out of people's hands, and real moola too, not those stock payments we hear about so much now.

I saw a note where your outgoing boss even said publicly that you are deep with conflicts of interest, yet you still plow ahead with your protection racket to make a relative few incredibly wealthy at the expense of the entire world, and increase confusion, spam (we get it here, too!), and other Internet-related crime that will result. Now that's moxy!

If I still had a body, I would bow to you, and that would be a first for me.

I wish we could have worked together. You're my kind of crooks.

Don't bother writing back. But I'll be watching ya', and loving every minute!

Sincerely yours in admiration,

"Al" Capone, Deceased

- - -


Posted by Lauren at 09:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 01, 2012

Black Magic, Big Lies, and the Perverting of the Internet

Author Arthur C. Clarke has been famously quoted as saying, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

His assertion may be arguably correct, but he neglected to make an important related stipulation. Was he referring to good magic or bad magic? Did he mean the wondrous powers of Glinda or the dark arts of the Wicked Witch of the West?

Does it matter? Isn't technology fundamentally just a set of tools, mechanisms that take on the ethics (or lack of ethics) of those who wield them?

One need only look at the way Internet-related issues are being perverted for greed and political advantage, at the manner in which Big Lies are dispensed like candy, to see the evil side of the equation at work.

Even persons who feel that they are soundly grounded in science, the folks (yes, like me, too) who smile knowingly at the foolishness of evolution deniers and global warming doubters, who jeer at nutcase sheriffs and Tea Party toadies -- yes, we're no different in this respect -- we too can be fooled.

The toxic cauldron of "gotcha" and Big Lie politics, the rise of illogical conspiracy theories and designated enemies, wars without end, so-called "friends" we've never really known -- all these and more have seeped into our collective consciousness, have gradually undermined our rationality, our thinking, and have likely made most of us perhaps more than a little bit crazy.

It's as if we now reside within a recurring "Groundhog Day" version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- with fabrications promoted as reality, and dissembling touted as truth.

In the Internet space, the examples -- many of which I've discussed extensively in the past -- are all around us, dripping with the putrid smells of greed, and the lust for power and political control.

Much vitriol is directed at Google these days -- perhaps to be expected with such a large target, comprised (as are all firms) of imperfect human beings.

Yet many of the accusations and their promoters are without logic, are senseless upon the application of even a modicum of serious thought.

Google is accused of what amounts to vast privacy conspiracies, even though no evidence of such is present, and even given that engaging in such behavior -- with competitors essentially just a click away -- would likely be suicidal. Millions of words are angrily written about Google's legal, though officially unsanctioned, collection of fragmentary, unencrypted Wi-Fi data from public airwaves, of exactly the same sort that any of us could easily gather with any modern laptop or cell phone in a simple drive around practically any neighborhood in the industrialized world. Whole websites are devoted to this "wardriving" hobby, and entire industries have been built upon such technologies, yet the Big Lie is that Google has done something awful in this vein.

ICANN, castigated by their own outgoing CEO as being rife with directly relevant conflicts of interest, continues to pursue its extortionist domain name expansion "gold rush" scheme, to suck billions of dollars from the global community toward the enrichment of anointed sycophants, their hands outstretched to pick the pockets of the world during already painful economic times. ICANN's Big Lie in this instance is that the Internet needs all these new gTLDs, that somehow the average Joe and Jill will benefit, while in reality the result will be more confusion, more spam, and more crime for all but the chosen few who will sit at the top of the increasingly corrupt Domain Name System pyramid.

The handful of dominant U.S. ISPs fight against Net Neutrality, against even the merest hint of regulations, while piling on arbitrary bandwidth caps, data throttling, and anticompetitive streaming services carefully positioned to take maximal advantage of these giant ISPs' massive control over most persons' Internet access. These firms claim that this is all to the consumers' advantage. This is yet another of the Big Lies, indeed.

Our leaders proclaim that "other countries" are the evil censors, the Internet blockers, the enemies of freedom. And yet it is the USA itself that has perverted the rickety obsolescence of the DNS into a weapon for site shutdowns and global censorship without due process, that supplants free speech and liberty with the greed of entertainment industry behemoths, and is now using legitimate cybersecurity concerns as an excuse to decimate privacy laws while claiming they're doing exactly the opposite. These are all facets of a Big Lie we've collectively heard innumerable times down through the centuries -- that this is all for our good, that anyone who complains is an idiot, unpatriotic, or both -- and that we should all just shut up and be docile, cooperative sheep to be sheared.

I've worn out many a keyboard writing of such things in the past. I've made my voice hoarse in discussions.

I have no desire to tilt at windmills. I do not underestimate the forces arrayed to not only protect the status quo, but to push the dark side ever deeper into our wallets, our lives, our very thoughts.

But if we continue in our complacency, in our willingness to be manipulated by Big Lies and Big Greed, we will not only have failed to fight the enemy, to at least try to make some degree of fairness and rationality an underpinning of our technologies and technological world, but we will have allowed ourselves to be consumed -- one lie at a time, one bite after another -- by the beasts of our own creation.


Posted by Lauren at 02:37 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein