October 28, 2011

Audio From Last Night's "Coast to Coast AM" Radio Show: Internet Freedom and Other Internet Topics Galore

Audio from my two hours back on Coast to Coast AM radio last night is now available.

Host George Noory and I covered an array of Internet and related topics, including Internet Freedom issues around the world (Congress vs. the Internet [E-PARASITE, PROTECT IP], privacy, government mandated site and search engine censorship, the "right to be forgotten" in Europe, iPhone vs. Android, rooting/jailbreaking phones, CyanogenMod, .xxx and other new Top Level Domains, Google, search results rankings, recent deaths in the technical community, and much more.

You can play the audio in the little applet below, or play/download it directly (~34 MB MP3 / 1.25 hours) if you prefer.

George is a real pro, and as always it was great having the opportunity to chat in depth with him and callers about these important issues.

Your thoughts on these topics are appreciated, of course.

Take care, all.

Internet Issues on Coast to Coast AM - 10/27/2011


Posted by Lauren at 05:19 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 27, 2011

Meet the Real Parasites: Congress Declares Nuclear War on the Global Internet

We don't have health care. We don't have jobs. Our civil liberties are being quashed. Income and wealth disparities in this country are immense and growing more pronounced as each hour passes, making the 1% richer and the rest of us ... dirt.

So what are our elected representatives in Congress doing to help us in our time of need?

They're actively working to hand control of the Internet over to law enforcement and the entertainment industry, to make sure the latter gets even fatter, and free speech on the Internet becomes a obsolete concept.

While Congress can't seem to act in a bipartisan manner to do anything to help the 99% that really need it, the two parties are managing to join hands to help crush freedom on the Net -- yes, they are equally culpable in this Orwellian thrust.

You probably already know about the terrible PROTECT IP Act in the U.S. Senate.

But now the House of Representatives has upped the ante, with their own "how stupid an acronym can we come up with" anti-Internet abomination as a companion piece to PROTECT IP. The House's gift to the 1% is called E-PARASITE (Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act).

I won't even take space here to explain in detail how incredibly, utterly awful this legislation is, other than to note that it contemplates a vast U.S.-controlled Web site takedown regime, guts the DMCA, enforces censorship on search engines like Google, and even criminalizes attempts to work around censorship -- and much more.

An excellent write-up on this horror can be found here.

Whether all provisions of such legislation can actually become law and survive court scrutiny is almost beyond the point. The fact that Congress in a bipartisan manner is willing to even consider such abominations is a travesty that we must not, can not ignore or forget.

Congress is not only aiming their nuclear anti-freedom bombs at its own citizens, but at the entire world through the U.S.' control of large parts of the global domain name system (DNS).

Efforts in E-PARASITE to enact censorship, takedowns without due process, and to ban circumvention techniques seem more akin to the kinds of foreign government actions that the U.S. government continues to officially condemn!

Through PROTECT IP and E-PARASITE, Congress is showing us more about where their loyalties reside than all of their duplicitous speeches and position papers put together.

I'll be back on Coast to Coast AM radio late tonight with host George Noory to discuss Congress' attempts to control and censor the Net, plus other issues (around midnight to 2am PDT).

Please see this list of stations and background info about the show.

Congress chose the names for these terrible legislative efforts. But to find the real parasites these days, all Congress needs to do is look into the mirror.


Posted by Lauren at 01:00 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 26, 2011

The Impending Chaos and an Internet Scent of Fear

I'm old enough to remember much of the civil rights movement. I'm definitely old enough to vividly remember the peak years of the Vietnam war.

In the decades since, the U.S. and the world have weathered numerous crises, many of our own making, but we've usually pulled through one way or another, often at the loss of lives and great amounts of money squandered.

But never in my life have I felt the rising tide of incipient social upheaval and possible chaos that we can easily sense today, like Edgar Allan Poe's Red Death contagion spreading at a touch, a breath, a glance.

Fundamentally, the civil rights movement mainly affected blacks, and Vietnam was (in this country) largely of most concern to young males (including me) who were vulnerable to armed forces induction. If you were black and of draft age, you were twice behind the eight ball.

But today, so much is going wrong, along so many different avenues and vectors, that virtually everybody around the entire world is likely to be affected.

There is a sense that economic inequities across the planet, in absolute and relative terms sufficient to drive both desperation and anger, are going rapidly out of control.

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its offshoots here in the U.S. and in other countries, despite their often amateurish tactics, sometimes misguided targeting, and frequently substantial lack of practical demands, are the understandably direct result of unacceptable conditions that have been allowed to fester to the benefit of the very few, and the detriment of the great many.

The risks of these protests -- now or in the future -- spinning out of control in response to aggressive police actions are very real. Word comes today of an Iraq war veteran in critical condition after his skull was apparently struck by a police tear gas grenade or rubber bullet in the Oakland protests. Another sign of gathering chaos.

The list is long enough here in this country. Lack of decent health care. The housing crisis. The job crisis. Dramatic and rapidly growing income and wealth disparities. Crackdowns on liberty and communications. Government censorship. Surveillance and secret information gathering techniques by law enforcement that would seem familiar in any police state. The list goes on. And on. And on.

Much of the rest of the world is in even worse shape, and the European Union still totters on the brink of an economic disaster that could drag the entire planet down with it.

What's different now is not only that there's something real and tangible for almost all of use to increasingly fear in these respects, but in contrast to past times of crises in my lifetime, there is no sense now that our political leaders are up to the task of making things better.

In fact, there is every indication that many of them are personally and politically motivated to make things worse, even if that means everyone below that still happy top 1% ends up crushed like bugs.

Congress' approval rating, apparently for the first time since polls have ever been taken, has just come in at under 10%. That means more than 9 out of 10 people disapprove of what Congress is doing. Congress is of course a creature of our own votes, and the vast move farther to the "no compromise" right on the GOP/Tea Party side, and to a lesser extent on the left as well, have created a situation where politicians are much more an escalating part of the problems than of solutions. Compromise is often the only way out of such dilemmas, and compromise has now become a dirty word.

This means escalating issues, escalating fear, a positive feedback loop that could drag us all into the abyss.

And there's another factor as well. The Internet and mobile technologies allow us to communicate as individuals to each other, and to the world, in manners that never were possible before in human history. Our eyes are open such as was unimaginable before the wide deployment of these technologies.

Government in general, politicians, and law enforcement have been slow to understand the ramifications of this fact. Not only are we now able to see and discuss inequities and abuses unfiltered by media, but we can organize in ways that strike fear in the hearts of those who have traditionally been -- in various guises -- our masters and overlords.

No wonder governments around the world -- including here in the U.S. -- are rushing to try pass draconian laws to restrict the Internet, to control it, to try coerce it -- or if necessary beat it -- into submission in the manner of traditional media and mass communications.

And they may succeed. As vast as the Internet appears, in reality around the world (especially in but not limited to here in the U.S.) a relatively few large corporations and entities serve the vast majority of Internet users. We can be reasonably sure that plans are already in place to assert governmental control in case of civil disorder or other perceived threats to the social fabric and the status quo.

Have you sensed the rising chaos? Perhaps a throbbing in your head that doesn't seem to quit. A shortness of breath that's hard to shake. A twinge of a panicky feeling when reading the news.

We have allowed our leaders and the financial community at large to herd us like sheep to the edge of the precipice.

But it is ultimately our fault, our failings, our poor judgments, that have taken us to this place, for we have figuratively allowed ourselves to be leashed like dogs and branded like cattle.

The question is, with our politicians obviously unable or unwilling to tackle these issues for our benefit, how can we divert from the current race towards what could be a calamity? How can we make the situation better, when our emotions are pushing us in directions that will almost certainly make matters worse?

The first step is to clearly understand what's really going on.

I fervently hope that we can find the next steps, before chaos engulfs us all.


Posted by Lauren at 07:42 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 22, 2011

Google Modifies SSL Behavior -- and the Results Are Troubling

A few days ago in another venue, I noted that Google has moved toward default SSL search for its logged-in users. I have long been an advocate for broader use of SSL encryption, as a means to protect users' data from third-party observation and manipulation, so I applauded this move by Google.

In that posting, I noted that there were some issues related to Web "referers" (that's the correct spelling in this context!) when used in SSL environments.

This isn't the time or place to get into a philosophical discussion of referers and whether or not data contained therein (such as user search queries) really should or should not have become standard operating procedure on the Web. As I've discussed previously, I am not in the "referers are always evil" camp, and I view the issues surrounding referers as being complex.

I've now had time to further study the referer/SSL situation with Google's new default SSL environment -- and to discuss the situation with Google -- and I'm frankly troubled by some of what I've found. In particular, certain changes that Google has apparently made in the normally expected SSL handling of referers may be viewed by some observers as at least creating the appearance of a "pay to play" push toward Google advertising.

This gets rather complicated quickly, and I'm basing the description that follows on the best information I have at this point. If I learn more later of note I will update as appropriate.

Please refer to my chart as we proceed (chart is also below).

One of the basic rules of SSL is that data is supposed to be protected from end-to-end. In particular, when a SSL-based query is made of a search engine, the expected behavior is that referer query data will not be passed along to sites clicked in the results unless those sites are also running SSL (subject to default browser and plugins settings, which would normally pass through this data).

This is indeed the reported behavior on Google's original encrypted search site -- branded as "SSL Beta" -- at https://encrypted.google.com. Users have been able to manually use this site for quite some time, by specifying it as a direct URL (either https:, or http: which diverts to https:). As you can see on the chart, referer query data from https://encrypted.google.com is passed to both "Ordinary" and "Ad" sites if those sites are https: (SSL), otherwise the referer query info is blocked.

However, Google has apparently altered this expected sequence for their new https://www.google.com -- which can be reached either by direct URL, or via automatic redirect from http: as described above for logged-in Google users.

There are two variations reported from expected SSL behavior on this version of the site, as denoted by the red boxes on the chart.

Normally, we would expect an ordinary destination site using SSL to receive the referer query data as per standard SSL end-to-end behavior. But apparently Google is now blocking this data in this case, as shown in the first red box.

Even more problematically, in the second red box we observe that for user clicks on Google ads, the ad site will receive the referer query info from the SSL search, even if that ad site is not using https: -- that is, isn't even using SSL at all -- seemingly directly violating the normally expected end-to-end SSL protection sequence.

Again, I am not anti-referer. I appreciate the value of referer query data for legitimate Search Engine Optimization (SEO), for ordinary Web site operators, and of course for advertisers.

Google notes a number of mitigating factors. They feel that they attempted to strike a balance between security and the needs of advertisers, and point out that only a small percentage (logged-in users, less than 10% of total searches currently) of queries are diverted to https://www.google.com. They also note that some search query data (though clearly not of the same depth as raw referer query data) is available through their (quite excellent, I will note) Webmaster Tools.

Still, these are quantitative, not qualitative limitations, and use of https://www.google.com can only be expected to expand.

So long as Google stayed within the normal, expected operating parameters of SSL in relation to referer queries, as with https://encrypted.google.com, they were on very firm ground.

But by changing the expected SSL behavior for https://www.google.com, they have created the appearance of a situation where -- as far as referer query data is concerned in this context -- it could be construed as necessary to buy Google ads to either obtain query data when you otherwise wouldn't be able to obtain it, or to keep receiving it in a situation where you ordinarily would have expected to receive it anyway.

My recommendation is fairly simple. In the optimum case, https://www.google.com should behave in the same manner that https://encrypted.google.com does now. As an alternative to ease the situation for advertisers, they could keep receiving query data from https://www.google.com -- even over http: links -- for a limited period to provide transition time for them to move to full https: SSL. This would also serve the laudable goal of further encouraging the adoption of SSL. At the end of the designated transition period, if ad sites were still not on https:, they would no longer receive referer query data. And needless to say, any site that runs https: -- whether they buy ads or not -- should be able to receive referer query data if ad sites can receive that data.

Google is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding their SSL situation. And one of Google's great strengths is their robust internal deliberation process and willingness to change course as appropriate.

It will be interesting to see how this saga transpires.


Posted by Lauren at 08:06 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 21, 2011

Mr. Spock Explains the Google+ Anonymity Controversy and the "Nymwars"

Mr. Spock, may I speak to you for a moment?

Of course, Captain.

Spock, what do you know about someone named "Google" in the 21st century?

Google. Yes. An interesting story. As it happens, I am considered to be the Federation's foremost authority on the subject.

Why doesn't that surprise me, Spock? Well, at least it explains this odd directive I've received from Starfleet Command. They want you to contact researchers on Rigel IV working on a retrospective history of something called, uh, the "Nymwars" -- am I pronouncing that correctly?

Yes, Captain. That is correct. A fascinating period of Earth history.

I must be missing something here, Spock. Wasn't Google a scientist involved in early Earth computer technology?

Not exactly, Captain. Google was a large firm begun in the very late 20th century, that became the primary basis of global and galactic grid knowledge expansion from that time onward well into the early 22nd century.

This is like that InterOprahNet -- whatever it was called -- way back then? Vint Zuckergore developed that, right Spock?

Not exactly, Captain, but you have the, uh, basic idea. The important point is that technologies from that era, especially from Google, still play an integral role throughout the Quadrant, except in the Klingon and Romulan Empires, of course.

Is that why my command console occasionally says "I'm Feeling Lucky" on the display?

That is correct, Captain.

If the Klingons and Romulans didn't use Google-based technology, what did they use, Spock?

I do not have comprehensive data concerning that, Captain. But I believe that they obtained inferior technology from one of Google's competitors at the time, a system that I believe was known as "Klang."


I am not completely certain about that, Captain.

Well, what does this all have to do with the Federation's sudden interest in ancient "Nymwars" or whatever they're called?

Nymwars refers to controversies over personal identity, anonymity, and pseudo-anonymity among users of the early computer social networking communications systems, in particular a service called "Google+" that was launched by Google in 2011, old-style dating. Some persons became concerned that if they were forced to identify themselves with their actual, real names, it would tend to restrain communications in some cases, and possibly subject some participants to punitive actions from their employers, insurance underwriting organizations, and so on.

That sounds crazy, Spock. Why were they so concerned about being identified? After all, every infant born in Federation territory has its DNA recorded, irises and retinas scanned, and at least two dozen other biometric parameters stored for their entire lives. We've done away with antique notions like poverty, privacy, and elections. That's what makes the Federation great.

I understand all that, Captain. But remember your human emotions. Back then everyone was not routinely medicated with psychotropic drugs as they are today.

Routinely medicated? What are you talking about, Spock?

Never mind that, Captain. May I continue about the Nymwars?


At the time, the groups pushing for some form of anonymity on Google+ broke down roughly into two categories. One contingent claimed that users were creating identities that looked real but actually were not, and demanded total anonymity, claiming that Google had been arbitrarily deleting identities they did not believe to be real, and had been rather publicly uncommunicative about related policies in this regard.

You mean as tight-lipped as an Aldebaran shellmouth?

I am glad you said it Captain, not I. But the characterization really would not have been particularly fair even then. Google+ was an extremely new and rapidly evolving service. And these were viewed as -- and were -- very complex issues, which were further complicated by domestic governments' nascent efforts to enforce government-verifiable identity requirements on various aspects of computer and communications network usage. There was even disagreement about such basic concepts as whether or not the use of "real" identities suppressed open discussion, led to an increase in polite discussion, or some combination of both.

You said there were two contingents, Spock. What about the other one?

The other group felt that having their actual names on file privately for Google+, so long as they were able to use pseudonyms in their public communications, would provide a useful compromise position that would help limit abusive behavior, but would also allow persons to keep their various Google+ public communications "compartmented" from the rest of their lives if they wished to do so, allowing them to communicate openly on possibly sensitive or unpopular subjects that they otherwise might feel uncomfortable discussing.

Who was right?

Neither side was completely without merit. Personally, I view the latter group -- who supported the compromise position of public pseudonyms in concert with real names held privately -- to have had the more logical viewpoint, Captain.

Who won, Spock? What did Google end up doing about names in Google+?

That is definitely the most fascinating part of the story, Captain. In late 2011, even after Google had announced specifically that they would be supporting some form of pseudonyms for Google+, the "complete anonymity" contingent remained emotionally adamant. The other group continued to push for compromise. Finally, by very early 2012, Google decided to ...

One moment, Spock. Yes, Mr. Chekov. Yes. I'll be right up to the bridge. Mr. Spock, we'll have to continue this later. Please be sure to contact Starfleet about that research.

Of course, Captain. And Captain ... are you feeling lucky?

I'm always feeling lucky, Mr. Spock.

- - -


Posted by Lauren at 06:35 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 17, 2011

Urgent Call for Improved Google+ Moderation Mechanisms

I've been happily using the still relatively very new Google+ system since the first day it was made available to external users. It is a fantastic communications tool, and one of its great strengths is Google's willingness to make changes to improve the system. This is a continuing process, not a point in time fait accompli.

There are some controversies of course. Notable among these has been the question of real names vs. pseudonyms, which I've discussed previously. I believe that Google will ultimately address this matter in a practical manner, even if likely solutions may not completely satisfy everyone with concerns on the various sides of the issue.

But with Google+ moving from "invite only" to "everyone can participate" status, a serious new problem has emerged that I hope will be addressed very quickly.

In brief, Google+ is being inundated with comment spam, and by "trolls" whose only purpose is using comments to disrupt communications, not to further real discussion on any associated issues.

"After the fact" of such comment postings, a quick inspection of the associated users' profiles and posting histories is typically sufficient to verify their dishonorable intentions.

Unfortunately, Google+'s existing "post-moderation" tools (for use after comments are publicly visible) for deleting comments and blocking users are not only inadequate to deal with such situations, but also exhibit certain anomalous behaviors that further reduce their effectiveness.

Given the massive increase in spam and trolling that is now taking place on Google+, post-moderation has the serious disadvantages of allowing such comments to not only appear publicly for significant periods of time (especially if posted during the night when the thread author is unlikely to be monitoring), but even permitting such comments to be permanently available if thread authors are unable to watch all of their old threads for new comment offenses -- a problem that only gets worse over time.

Google+ needs to provide thread authors with the option of using pre-moderation tools that present submitted comments for approval (or dismissal/flagging as abuse) prior to their being publicly viewable. This would be entirely consistent with the sorts of moderation tools typically available on blogging platforms and even on Google's own YouTube.

Some observers feel that pre-moderation unnecessarily restricts the open flow of information. True, in a perfect world where spam and trolls were not a fact of life, pre-moderation might not be necessary. But in the real world, not being able to filter out such garbage prior to public availability actually has the effect of suppressing information flow on a far larger scale, by discouraging users from creating threads on controversial topics likely to be subjected to such directed attacks.

This is not a merely theoretical matter. I've seen convincing evidence of organized, politically motivated efforts now in place to purposely disrupt threads and render them useless for reasoned discourse.

I hope that Google will address these Google+ concerns, both involving the behavior of existing post-moderation tools, and the urgent need for optional pre-moderation mechanisms, as soon as possible.



Posted by Lauren at 12:20 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 13, 2011

A Few Brief Thoughts on the Death of Computer Science Titan Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie has died after a long illness. He was only the relatively young age of 70. Unlike Steve Jobs, Dennis was not a household name. He should have been, but he was a quiet and private person, and would have hated the publicity.

I've known Dennis since the early days of the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs in the 70s, where he created the ubiquitous "C" programming language, and co-created UNIX with Ken Thompson.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this work to today's world. UNIX was almost entirely written in "C" -- and UNIX's direct descendants like Linux power Google, the Web at large (the vast majority of Web servers run Linux), and likely multiple devices in your home and office right now. The current Mac OS. Android. TiVo. The impact of C and Linux are everywhere. Your ability to read these words rests directly to a major degree on Dennis' work.

But beyond the nitty-gritty of software design, the creation of UNIX was also the inception of what would ultimately become the open source community, and the vast collaborations of the ARPANET/Internet that have led to the global phenomenon we see today.

Such goals were explicit in the design of UNIX. In this 1980s Bell Labs video from my collection, featuring Ken and Dennis explaining the origins of UNIX, Dennis explains how they wanted the system to specifically foster community and fellowship.

I said this would be brief. I'll close with one personal story. Back in the early UNIX days, on one of my visits to Bell Labs' main facilities in Murray Hill, New Jersey, I was sitting at a terminal in the 1127 Labs where UNIX was developed, logged in over the nascent Net back to UCLA. As usual, I was trying to get a bit of coding done even on this trip.

My rapid typing suddenly stopped as I puzzled over a particularly complex C language declaration in the program, that definitely was incorrect as it stood.

Sitting at the terminal next to me was Dennis. So I asked his advice on the declaration -- after all, who better to know than the creator of the language?

He thought about it for no more than a few seconds, then immediately (and graciously) provided an elegant solution that, frankly, would not have occurred to me. I got on with my programming.

In later years, I realized that this exchange was probably the closest I'd ever come in my life to asking a question directly to, and receiving a detailed answer from, a true god.

Rest in peace, Dennis.


Posted by Lauren at 10:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 11, 2011

DNS Bypass Systems Needed Now! -- VeriSign Wants Right to Shut Down Domains for Pretty Much Any Reason

VeriSign has formally requested permission to shut down domains (apparently in most cases with only "after the fact" recourse for targeted sites) for a long list of reasons, ranging from what they view as "malware infestation" to "requests" (not limited to court orders) from "law enforcement."

By this move, VeriSign continues efforts to morph the Domain Name System (DNS) into an adjunct of both the "domain-industrial complex" and law enforcement, including efforts to impose U.S.-based enforcement on sites based wholly within other countries.

Though it is possible to posit extremely rare scenarios where rapid takedown of a domain may be needed to protect the safety of individuals or the Internet at large, in reality most of the circumstances cited by VeriSign are much more akin to commercial concerns or law enforcement desires short of court orders, and involve an obvious effort to bypass due process, both domestically and internationally.

While it is understood that long-term efforts are necessary to replace the existing increasingly co-opted and abused DNS with an entirely new, distributed system not subject to such abuses (e.g. "IDONS" or some other mechanism), it is also extremely clear that concerned organizations and individuals need to be working right now on short-term alternatives that can be brought into immediate action -- to help insure continued access to sites after inappropriate and in some cases likely illegal domain takedowns by VeriSign or other entities.

There are a number of technical approaches available to accomplish this, that could provide for rapid deployment on an "as needed" basis, without requiring significant new engineering.

Your thoughts on this would be appreciated. Thanks.


Posted by Lauren at 05:04 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 07, 2011

On the Internet and Off: Chaos and Guillotines

A couple of days ago, when I posted on YouTube a very nice tribute to Steve Jobs that I had seen, I used my standard settings to moderate viewer comments. Since "trolls" and other comment abusers are a not uncommon annoyance, I've found this to be the best technique for maintaining a level of "decorum" that I personally prefer in such venues.

And even though the vast majority of comments were positive, and the "thumbs-up" count exceeded thumbs down by more than two orders of magnitude, I was still taken aback by the viciousness and obscene hatred expressed in a considerable number of queued comments (all of which I blew away into oblivion -- they were especially inappropriate for a posting in the wake of such a death).

Noteworthy were the submissions -- some of considerable length -- that seemed to equate perceived shortcomings by Jobs and Apple to a twisted "he deserved to die" mentality. I'm certainly no Apple fanboy -- I have a variety of gripes with how Apple operates. But certainly such writings are beyond the pale in any civilized sense. Equally disturbing were comment submissions wishing a painful death on Bill Gates from some professed Apple aficionados. And in contrast to claims that "real names" result in higher quality comments, I could discern no differences between anonymous and obviously pseudonymous comments and those using (supposedly or definitely) real names in these respects.

As disturbing as many of these comments were (and are -- comments are still rolling in), these effects are not unprecedented by any means.

In other venues, including Google+ and my inbound email, I've been seeing what appears to be an increasing sense of hardline posturing, even in the face of obvious factual discordances.

Try to discuss the differences between Facebook and Google privacy policies, and comments start to fill with "they're all the same!" proclamations suggesting a range of supposed conspiratorial relationships. Point out specifically where Google handles data in a pro-privacy manner, and responses appear like "well, maybe they're not doing something bad now, but they could in the future!"

This seems akin to an exchange in 1967's film Casino Royale, where a character portrayed by Woody Allen claims that "People called Einstein crazy!" When told that no one ever called Einstein crazy, Woody's character replies, "Well, they would have if he'd carried on like this!"

Another example. There is justifiable criticism of Microsoft's Bing for their continuing direct participation in Chinese government censorship regimes. But does this make Microsoft crazy?

Some observers seem to think so. When Microsoft's free antivirus package recently incorrectly flagged and started deleting Google's Chrome browser as a virus, I was inundated with messages from people convinced that this was a purposeful act by Microsoft to "damage" Chrome's market share.

But even a cursory bit of serious thinking reveals the illogical nature of such an assumption. The risks of getting caught doing something like that would be enormous. It would make no sense from a cost/benefit or any other angle, and would essentially require imputing criminal motives to Microsoft that would be an utterly nonsensical risk for them.

Why are so many people so loudly buying into such ludicrous concepts on the Net?

We need only look to the rising tide of chaos and refusal to compromise off the Net to understand, since the Net is ultimately but a reflection of the world at large.

In a time when it has become de rigueur by some on the right to insanely compare President Obama with Hitler, to call Obama simultaneously a communist, fascist, and socialist, and where the GOP has aligned itself with a Tea Party that indisputably contains racist elements within its ranks, the sense of increasing chaos seems palpable.

Nor are those on the left blameless in this maelstrom. Similar harsh epithets and calls of "traitor" against Obama are not infrequent from that side of the political spectrum, usually in concert with complaints that Obama has not single-handedly brought about desired major changes, despite the fact that a non-dictatorial president's ability to bring about real change is extraordinarily constrained by legal and institutional factors.

Author David Brin (with whom I don't always agree) has very recently and aptly suggested that the forces we see in play today, especially in regard to skewed accumulation of wealth and refusals to apply marginally higher tax rates to the wealthiest members of society, have created an environment strikingly similar to that prior to the French Revolution.

Presumably few of us want to see a return to the widespread use of la guillotine to cull the ruling class. But when you see vast numbers of persons without proper health care (making us the laughingstock of the western world), and increasing crowds of disaffected individuals protesting against the financial criminals who nearly triggered a global depression -- evaded only by the imposition of unpopular bailouts -- it understandably should bring chills to the spines of some observers on high.

In reality of course, not all members of the GOP and Tea Party are racists, just as everyone on the left aren't anarchists. But we know that such persons do exist at both ends of the spectrum, and there is a natural tendency to perceive groups by virtue of their most extreme (and often loudest) members.

An old saying (not fair to the dog lovers among us!) is that "when you lay down with dogs, don't be surprised if you wake up with fleas."

In other words, if we allow those persons whose ultimate goals are dissension rather than reasoned compromise -- and chaos over the common good -- to be the framers of these debates, we are permitting them to characterize us as well as themselves, and in the process allowing them to condemn all of us to their dismal fates.

This is true both on the Internet and in the "real world" -- a distinction that is becoming less meaningful with every passing day as the Net continues to fundamentally pervade more and more aspects of our lives.

Can we harness the Internet as a means to steer the world away from chaos, to use its unparalleled ability to disseminate knowledge and truth to aim us toward the light?

Or will the Net follow toxic footsteps deep into the darkness, perhaps a future where webcams are used primarily to watch figurative bloody heads fall into figurative wicker baskets? -- Or maybe not so figurative at that.

The best of times? The worst of times? Future history awaits our answer.


Posted by Lauren at 06:28 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein