How Ancient Monopolies Keep You from Getting Decent Internet Service

Many of us tend to assume that here in U.S. we have the most advanced technologies on the planet. So it may be startling to learn that by global Internet standards, numerous experts consider us to be living in something of a Stone Age Internet nation.

The reality is stark. Many countries in the world pay far less for their Internet services than we do, and get much faster and more reliable services in the bargain. While many countries have set a national goal of fiber optics directly connecting every home and business, here in the United States phone companies still are arguing that snail’s pace Net connections should qualify as broadband.

Even when relatively “high” Internet access speeds are available via cable, they tend to be mainly in the downstream direction. For example, I have the highest cable modem speed available in my location here in L.A., which is 300 Mb/s downstream — but only 20 Mb/s up. Obviously, high upstream speeds are important for a range of applications (not just limited to obvious ones like remote data backup). Cable modem speeds are getting better, but the fundamentals of cable system technology continue to dampen upstream speeds.

You might reasonably ask how so many other countries have been able to get much better Internet access to their residents, compared with us here in the country that invented the Internet.

The detailed reasons are complicated technically, legally, and very much politically, but the bottom line is that the Internet ecosystem here in the U.S. has long been rigged against effective competition, a direct outgrowth of early telecommunications monopoly environments.

One example of this may be visible right outside your window.

Have you ever wondered who owns those “telephone” poles throughout your community, or the underground cables and conduits in some towns?

The short answer is: What a mess!

Poles may be owned by power companies, by phone companies, by cable companies, or in some cases by communities themselves — or various combinations thereof. 

The land that these poles are planted in typically is in the form of an “easement” — a specific area of land still owned by the main property owner, but with access and other rights granted by government to various utilities and other firms. It works basically the same way with underground cables and conduits.

As you might imagine, easements can be the subject of complex and varied legal entanglements and disputes, even though most are granted when housing or commercial developments are being initially planned.

But for the sake of our discussion here right now, the most interesting aspect of easements is in older communities (for example, areas built up prior to the AT&T divestiture of 1984).

History matters in this context (as in so many other aspects of life) because when these easements were granted to communications companies back in the day, they were usually “monopoly” grants. That is, while we would probably agree even now that assuming a single water and/or power company would be logical, those historic easements were usually assuming only a single communications (phone) company, or later the original incumbent phone company plus a single cable TV company.

This is incredibly relevant today, because the entities controlling these easements, and that usually own the poles, cables, and conduits that everyone must use to provide landline communications services to homes or businesses, are quite powerfully in the catbird seat.

Here’s why.

In many countries, governments have national Internet plans that provide for robust competition in various ways. But here in the U.S., if you want to bring — for example — high speed fiber Internet to a community, you often have to deal with the incumbent telecom or other utility firms to gain access to those poles and/or underground facilities.

And those firms — like AT&T, Verizon, and the rest of the gang you likely are familiar with — have very little incentive to be particularly cooperative with new competitors bringing in far better services. In fact, the old guard firms have frequently pushed through laws — and/or filed lawsuits — aimed at preventing communities from encouraging or even permitting such competition.

So we find it not uncommon for the incumbents to demand exorbitant “pole attachment” or other access fees, or to delay and obfuscate as long as possible.

It’s important to remember that these incumbent firms typically only control these access assets because of those original monopoly grants from many decades ago — giving them exclusivity that is nonsensical and unfair so many years later. But they’ve become experts at milking every last possible dollar out of the jolly old monopoly days, even now!

If this sounds bad, it gets worse for the captive residents of many apartment buildings and commercial developments.

Building owners and landlords frequently view Internet access as a massive personal profit center, and engage in restrictive shenanigans — some of which can be viewed as illegal — to strike lucrative, and yes, monopoly deals with telecom firms, demanding sweetheart payments for access to their tenants, and treating those tenants as if they were medieval serfs. For more on this particularly seamy side of Internet access, please see Susan Crawford’s excellent recent article: “Dear Landlord: Don’t Rip Me Off When it Comes To Internet Access — When building owners get kickbacks from big providers it’s the tenants who lose.”

You might think that this sorry state of affairs would be pretty much obvious to everyone, but in our toxic political environment that would be very far from the truth.

In fact, there are many in Congress who don’t see any consumer problems here at all. Whether or not one chooses to consider these access issues under the “network neutrality” umbrella, many politicians who have long enjoyed the “generosity” of the incumbent telecom firms are lined up to block any attempts to improve the competitive landscape for Internet consumers, thereby condemning us to continued laughingstock status in the eyes of most other countries.

We do have some power though — in the voting booth. These issues tend to have local, state, and often federal components, and we’re unlikely to see significant improvements while lapdog beneficiaries of dominant Big Telecom remain in political control.

Or perhaps you’re satisfied with exorbitant prices and “Flintstones-class” Internet access throughput. Frankly, this far into the 21st century, I strongly believe that we can do much better than having so many of us running at bare feet pedal power Internet speeds.

Yabba dabba doo!

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

A Rare Endorsement: When the Disk Drive Fails

As a matter of policy, I almost never make commercial endorsements. But I’m making an extremely rare exception today, because I feel that this particular firm may be able to save a whole lot of people a whole lot of grief.

Recently, I was called upon to help deal with a disk failure situation that rapidly appeared to be fairly hopeless. The disk in question was in a laptop (Linux ext3 format filesystem), and it had failed suddenly and hard — very hard. None of my usual tricks could revive it.

There were some backups, but all the ones less than a year old turned out to be largely useless due to corruption (I have a few choice words to say about “tar” that I’ll save for another day).

I found myself researching disk recovery firms — an area that I had never had occasion to examine in depth before. I quickly discovered that this category of business is replete with come-ons and abusive gimmicks.

For example, the promoted prices you see for most recovery firms typically bear no resemblance to reality except in the simplest of cases (e.g., when it’s just a matter of using software to undelete “deleted” files from a FAT32 disk).

But if the drive has actually suffered hardware damage (e.g. to the circuitry or platters) the price will typically skyrocket astronomically.

I also quickly discovered that most of the firms claiming they had “local” offices in big cities actually could only do those software-level operations there. Any hardware issues meant them shipping the drives to some central lab — meaning more delays.

In the midst of this rather gloomy research I stumbled across a firm called $300 Data Recovery.

Now if you’re like me, you’re a bit wary of firms that promote a price in their name. Hell, think of the expensive rebranding if your prices go up! But I was intrigued by their pricing chart, and by the fact that they were local to me here in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, just a 20 minute or so shot straight down the 101. I like dealing with local firms when I can, since that means I can show up in person “to chat” if something goes wrong.

It’s a very small firm in a rather strange location for such an operation. There are just a handful of employees — various of my routine email communications were directly with the owner. It’s on the second floor of a strip mall on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, surrounded by typical strip mall businesses about as logically far away from data recovery as you can imagine.

Yet they apparently do all their work in-house right there, including in their own clean room when necessary. When I took the bad disk over there, I was amused by their collection of horrifically failed open disk drives in the waiting area.

You can read the details of their pricing structure on their site, but the bottom line is that for most common situations, for a single disk already removed from a computer, they charge a flat $300 (for up to 2TB disks) if they can recover the data, otherwise — nothing. If there’s limited partial recovery, you can choose whether or not you want to pay that fee for what they recovered, based on a comprehensive list of recovered files that they email you. If you want priority service to go to the head of the queue and have them start working on a disk immediately, there’s a nonrefundable $50 up front, and an additional $150 if you accept the recovered data. So, in that case, the total is $500 — still a serious bargain. This doesn’t include shipping or the cost of a transfer drive — both quite reasonable and in my case avoided since I drove out to them and provided my own transfer drive for the recovered data.

They also handle larger disks and RAID arrays for additional (but still utterly reasonable) fees. And they happily execute data recovery nondisclosure agreements. By the way, they can target particular files for recovery by name if you wish, and can put crucial recovered files online in a secure location if you need to download them immediately.

In many cases they apparently can recover data in a day or two once starting work on a given disk. The disk I took them had to run in the “cloning” stage for more like five days to recover the maximum amount of data from crash-damaged platters, then another day or so for filesystem reconstruction. They keep you informed by email all through this process and respond virtually immediately to queries.

In the case of this particular disk, they ultimately recovered more than 99% (99.38% notes Mr. Spock) of the data! This doesn’t mean you get 99.38% of all the files back perfectly intact of course — since that remaining 0.62% can be scattered across the filesystem in various ways. They return the data in several different formats — recovered filesystem section with full hierarchy data, orphaned files without names and/or directories, and so on. “Grep” is very useful to locate specific files in those latter cases, of course, though the key files I was tasked to find were quickly located in the filesystem recovery section with their directory structures intact.

In fact, all important files (including some crucial databases) were recovered from that disk, nearly all 100% complete.

I’d call that a success by any measure.

I’ll add in passing that there seem to be some haters of this company out there, including somebody who bothered to build a whole site dedicated to trashing them — claiming they’re incompetent, that they pay people to give them good reviews, and other rants. I don’t know what the authors of that site are going on about — I can only speak to my own experience. When I got the recovered data back, it was noted that a positive review would be appreciated, but I certainly wasn’t offered any money or other compensation for one — nor would I have accepted such in any case. Nobody paid me nuttin’ for this blog posting!

As for their competency, I handed them a trashed, useless disk drive, they handed me back a disk loaded with important recovered data that was needed to fulfill an important mission — and at a completely reasonable price. That’s good enough for me! I know I would take any disk drive of mine to them in similar situations.

So if you’re ever in a tough spot with a failed disk, you might very well want to check these guys out — again, that’s $300 Data Recovery.

When I was getting ready to leave their shop with the recovered data disk, I mentioned to them that I appreciated all their great work and would enthusiastically recommend them — but frankly, I hoped to never have to deal with them myself again in a professional capacity!

It was clear from their smile that they knew exactly what I meant.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Die Passwords! Die!

(Original posting date: 31 May 2013)

In one form or another — verbal, written, typed, semaphored, grunted, and more — passwords broadly defined have been part of our cultures pretty much since the dawn of humans at least. Whether an 18 character mixed-case password replete with unusual symbols, or the limb-twisting motions of a secret handshake, we’ve always needed means for authentication and identity verification, and we’ve long used the concept of a communicable “secret” of some kind to fill this need.

As we plow our way ever deeper into the 21st century, it is notable that most of our Internet and other computer-based systems still depend on the basic password motif for access control. And despite sometimes herculean efforts to keep password-based environments viable, it’s all too clear that we’re rapidly reaching the end of the road for this venerable mechanism.

That this was eventually inevitable has long been clear, but recent events seem to be piling up and pointing at a more rapid degeneration of password security than many observers had anticipated, and this is taking us quickly into the most complex realms of identity and privacy.

Advances in mathematical techniques, parallel processing, and particularly in the computational power available to password crackers (now often using very high speed graphics processing units to do the number crunching) are undermining long held assumptions about the safety of passwords of any given length or complexity, and rendering even hashed password files increasingly vulnerable to successful attacks. If a single configuration error allows such files to fall into the wrong hands, even the use of more advanced password hashing algorithms is no guarantee of protection against the march of computational power and techniques that may decimate them in the future.

What seems like an almost daily series of high profile password breaches has triggered something of a stampede to finally implement multiple-factor authentication systems of various kinds, which are usually a notch below even more secure systems that use a new password for every login attempt (that is, OTP – One-Time Password systems, which usually depend on a hardware device or smartphone app to generate disposable passwords).

As you’d imagine, the ultimate security of what we might call these “enhanced password” environments depends greatly on the quality of their implementations and maintenance. A well designed multiple factor system can do a lot of good, but a poorly built and vulnerable one can give users a false sense of security that is actually even more dangerous than a basic password system alone.

Given all this, it’s understandable that attention has now turned toward more advanced methodologies that — we hope — will be less vulnerable than any typical password-based regimes.

There are numerous issues. Ideally, you don’t want folks routinely using passwords at all in the conventional sense. Even relatively strong passwords become especially problematic when they’re used on multiple systems — a very common practice. The old adage of the weakest link in the chain holds true here as well. And the less said about weak passwords the better (such as “12345” — the kind of password, as noted in Mel Brooks’ film “Spaceballs” — that “an idiot would have on his luggage”) — or worse.

So, much focus now is on “federated” authentication systems, such as OAuth and others.

At first glance, the concept appears simple enough. Rather than logging in separately to every site, you authenticate to a single site that then (with your permission) shares your credentials via “tokens” that represent your desired and permitted access levels. Those other sites never learn your password per se, they only see your tokens, which can be revoked on demand. For example, if you use Google+, you can choose to use your Google+ credentials to access various other cooperating sites. An expanding variety of other similar environments are also in various stages of availability.

This is a significant advance. But if you’re still using simple passwords for access to a federated authentication system, many of the same old vulnerabilities may still be play. Someone gaining illicit access to your federated identity may then have access to all associated systems. This strongly suggests that when using federated login environments you should always use the strongest currently available practical protections — like multiple-factor authentication.

All that being said, it’s clear that the foreseeable future of authentication will appropriately depend heavily on federated environments of one form or another, so a strong focus there is utterly reasonable.

Given that the point of access to a federated authentication system is so crucial, much work is in progress to eliminate passwords entirely at this level, or to at least associate them with additional physical means of verification.

An obvious approach to this is biometrics — fingerprints, iris scans, and an array of other bodily metrics. However, since biometric identifiers are so associated with law enforcement, cannot be transferred to another individual in cases of emergency, and are unable to be changed if compromised, the biometric approach alone may not be widely acceptable for mass adoption outside of specialized, relatively high-security environments.

Wearable devices may represent a much more acceptable compromise for many more persons. They could be transferred to another individual when necessary (and stolen as well, but means to render them impotent in that circumstance are fairly straightforward).

A plethora of possibilities exist in this realm — electronically enabled watches, bracelets, rings, temporary tattoos, even swallowable pills — to name but a few. Sound like science-fiction? Nope, all of these already exist or are in active development.

Naturally, such methods are useless unless the specific hardware capabilities to receive their authentication signals is also present, when and where you need it, so these devices probably will not be in particularly widespread use for the very short term at least. But it’s certainly possible to visualize them being sold along with a receiver unit that could be plugged into existing equipment. As always, price will be a crucial factor in adoption rates.

Yet while the wearable side of the authentication equation has the coolness factor, the truth is that it’s behind the scenes where the really tough challenges and the most seriously important related policy and engineering questions reside.

No matter the chosen methods of authentication — typed, worn, or swallowed — one of the most challenging areas is how to appropriately design, deploy, and operate the underlying systems. It is incumbent on us to create powerful federated authentication environments in ways that give users trustworthy control over how their identity credentials are managed and shared, what capabilities they wish to provide in specific environments, how these factors interact with complex privacy parameters, and a whole host of associated questions, including how to provide for pseudonymous and anonymous activities where appropriate.

Not only do we need to understand the basic topology of these questions and develop policies that represent reasonable answers, we must actually build and deploy such systems in secure and reliable ways, often at enormous scale by historical standards. It’s a fascinating area, and there is a tremendous amount of thinking and work ongoing toward these goals — but in many ways we’re only just at the beginning. Interesting times.

One thing is pretty much certain, however. Passwords as we’ve traditionally known them are on the way out. They are doomed. The sooner we’re rid of them, the better off we’re all going to be.

Especially if your password is “12345” …

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

No, I did not have a project where I “released birds” over the ARPANET

So I get this email from a researcher asking me about my project to release birds over satellites, and ARPANET, and what he called “UCNET” — and I’ll admit the initial message was puzzling. I don’t recall any significant bird release projects in my past. After a little more back and forth, I figured out what was going on — he had somehow conflated several of my past projects in a very amusing manner. However, this got me thinking about how the historical record will view this stuff. So here’s how it actually untangles:

Apparently this guy started when he stumbled across my name on a page about the old ADVENTURE game. In fact, this is where the “bird release” hook comes from in the first place!

Back in ARPANET days at UCLA, I had a project called “Touch-Tone UNIX” (it was described in a paper I presented at a USENIX conference several hundred years ago). I was pretty proud of the fact that the entire name was composed of what was then *two* AT&T trademarks.

So this used a Votrax speech synth, heavily modified UNIX text-to-speech code, and a touch-tone modem feeding into the system via a DEC PDP-11/70 serial port (running a driver I had also heavily modified). I created an early (probably the first) system for mapping touch-tone presses to full ASCII. Control-G was played as the word “BING!”

The original purpose for all this was an adjunct of my work on newswire scanning systems (I had an “underground” feed of the teletype speed AP wire coming to me from a “friendly” source over the ARPANET). I collected all this (even at TTY speed the data builds up over time) and processed it in various ways for searching and retrieval, including via voice announcements and automatic phone call notifications (that’s where the voice synth came in, of course). The newswire scanning code eventually attracted the attention of an intelligence agency subcontractor, but nothing ultimately came of them. This is a *different* story than the day I was sitting in the UCLA ARPANET machine room and a colleague suddenly came in and said, “Hey Lauren, get out here, two guys from NSA are looking for you.” Yeah, that’s a different saga.

Anyway, Touch-Tone UNIX was a quite general purpose platform in its way, and you could run arbitrary UNIX commands over the phone and it would try speak the results in a reasonable way. You can guess what happened. One of the most popular uses turned out to be playing ADVENTURE over the system. And so I indeed did have graduate students waiting for tables in Westwood eateries, and playing ADVENTURE from payphones — and confusing patrons by suddenly exclaiming loudly, “I released the bird!”

Now what about “UCNET” and satellites? This is conflation of two other of my projects. One was my UULINK software, which was the *first* non-UNIX UUCP implementation (Wikipedia of course doesn’t even mention it, and I’m not enough of a masochist to try fix stuff on Wikipedia). It included a UUCP/ARPANET mail gateway and RFC-compliant mail handling and such. At the time it was considered highly specialized but was quite widely used in a variety of commercial, government, and other applications, including some of its code being adopted for specialized “high speed” modem communications modes for UUCP. The original code was written for and ran under DOS, migrated from my earlier experiments in this area on CP/M. This is from the period where my incoming UUCP phone line to my own UULINK system typically got a call every three minutes or so 24/7, from educational sites, DEC, and Bell Labs sites around the country. My published email address around that time looked like:

ARPA: vortex!lauren@LBL-CSAM
UUCP: {decvax, ihnp4, harpo, ucbvax!lbl-csam, randvax}!vortex!lauren
(Yeah, my “vortex” goes way, way back, well before it became among the first 40 dot-com domains issued 30 years ago.)

The satellite angle was my STARGATE project (this was also described and presented in a USENIX paper). STARGATE was an experiment in sending Netnews articles over the vertical blanking interval of SuperStation WTBS (based in Atlanta, but available all over the country by cable). A very early effort at data over cable, you’d use a special (too expensive) box that would connect to your TV cable line, tune it to WTBS, and get a continuous Netnews data feed. I installed the data equipment at the WTBS uplink myself. Remarkably, someone who worked at the facility back then very recently (out of the blue!) sent me an old video of the data shack where this was all installed at the base of the big uplink dishes. Obviously this was a one-way system — you’d submit articles via UUCP for example (so my UULINK system was integrated with this, along with other systems) — but since most people read far more than they write, this actually worked pretty well. The cost factors made it impractical in the long run though — those decoder boxes were pricey and at the time cable penetration wasn’t all that great where it needed to be (e.g., inside schools, businesses, etc.) But it was quite interesting and a lot of fun.

That’s the thumbnail of all this anyway. Maybe it’ll help to avoid confusion in the future. Probably not. That’s history for ya’.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

A Proposal for Dealing with Terrorist Videos on the Internet

(Original posting date: 21 December 2015)

As part of the ongoing attempts by politicians around the world to falsely demonize the Internet as a fundamental cause of (or at least a willing partner in) the spread of radical terrorist ideologies, arguments have tended to focus along two parallel tracks.

First is the notorious “We have to do something about evil encryption!” track. This is the dangerously loony “backdoors into encryption for law enforcement and intelligence agencies” argument, which would result in the bad guys having unbreakable crypto, while honest citizens would have their financial and other data made vastly more vulnerable to attacks by black hat hackers as never before. That this argument is made by governments that have repeatedly proven themselves incapable of protecting citizens’ data in government databases makes this line of “reasoning” all the more laughable. More on this at:

Why Governments Lie About Encryption Backdoors

The other track in play relates to an area where there is much more room for reasoned discussion — the presence on the Net of vast numbers of terrorist-related videos, particularly the ones that directly promote violent attacks and other criminal acts.

Make no mistake about it, there are no “magic wand” solutions to be found for this problem, but perhaps we can move the ball in a positive direction with some serious effort.

Both policy and technical issues must be in focus.

In the policy realm, all legitimate Web firms already have Terms of Service (ToS) of some sort, most of which (in one way or another) already prohibit videos that directly attempt to incite violent attacks or display actual acts such as beheadings (and, for example, violence to people and animals in non-terrorism contexts). How to more effectively enforce these terms I’ll get to in a moment.

When we move beyond such directly violent videos, the analysis becomes more difficult, because we may be looking at videos that discuss a range of philosophical aspects of radicalism (both international and/or domestic in nature, and sometimes related to hate groups that are not explicitly religious). Often these videos do not make the kinds of direct, explicit calls to violence that we see in that other category of videos discussed just above.

Politicians tend to promote the broadest possible censorship laws that they can get away with, and so censorship tends to be a slippery slope that starts off narrowly and rapidly expands to other than the originally targeted types of speech.

We must also keep in mind that censorship per se is solely a government power — they’re the ones with the prison cells and shackles to seriously enforce their edicts. The Terms of Service rules promulgated by Web services are independent editorial judgments regarding what they do or don’t wish to host on their facilities.

My view is that it would be a lost cause, and potentially a dangerous infringement on basic speech and civil rights, to attempt the eradication from the Net of videos in the second category I noted — the ones basically promoting a point of view without explicitly promoting or displaying violent acts. It would be all too easy for such attempts to morph into broader, inappropriate controls on speech. And frankly, it’s very important that we be able to see these videos so that we can analyze and prepare for the philosophies being so promoted.

The correct way to fight this class of videos is with our own information, of course. We should be actively explaining why (for example) ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State/Daesh philosophies are the horrific lies of a monstrous death cult.

Yes, we should be doing this effectively and successfully. And we could, if we put sufficient resources and talent behind such information efforts. Unfortunately, Western governments in particular have shown themselves to be utterly inept in this department to date.

Have you seen any of the current ISIL recruitment videos? They’re colorful, fast-paced, energetic, and incredibly professional. Absolutely state of the art 21st century propaganda aimed at young people.

By contrast, Western videos that attempt to push back against these groups seem more on the level of the boring health education slide shows we were shown in class back when I was in elementary school.

Small wonder that we’re losing this information war. This is something we can fix right now, if we truly want to.

As for that other category of videos — the directly violent and violence-inciting ones that most of us would agree have no place in the public sphere (whether they involve terrorist assassinations or perverts crushing kittens), the technical issues involved are anything but trivial.

The foundational issue is that immense amounts of video are being uploaded to services like YouTube (and now Facebook and others) at incredible rates that make any kind of human “previewing” of materials before publication entirely impractical, even if there were agreement (which there certainly is not) that such previewing was desirable or appropriate.

Services like Google’s YouTube run a variety of increasingly sophisticated automated systems to scan for various content potentially violating their ToS, but these systems are not magical in nature, and a great deal of material slips through and can stay online for long periods.

A main reason for this is that uploaders attempting to subvert the system — e.g., by uploading movies and TV shows to which they have no rights, but that they hope to monetize anyway — employ a vast range of techniques to try prevent their videos from being detected by YouTube’s systems. Some of these methods render the results looking orders of magnitude worse than an old VHS tape, but the point is that a continuing game of whack-a-mole is inevitable, even with continuing improvements in these systems, especially considering that false positives must be avoided as well.

These facts tend to render nonsensical recent claims by some (mostly nontechnical) observers that it would be “simple” for services like YouTube to automatically block “terrorist” videos, in the manner that various major services currently detect child porn images. One major difference is that those still images are detected via data “fingerprinting” techniques that are relatively effective on known still images compared against a known database, but are relatively useless outside the realm of still images, especially for videos of varied origins that are routinely manipulated by uploaders specifically to avoid detection. Two completely different worlds.

So are there practical ways to at least help to limit the worst of the violent videos, the ones that most directly portray, promote, and incite terrorism or other violent acts?

I believe there are.

First — and this would seem rather elementary — video viewers need to know that they even have a way to report an abusive video. And that mechanism shouldn’t be hidden!

For example, on YouTube currently, there is no obvious “abuse reporting” flag. You need to know to look under the nebulous “More” link, and also realize that the choice under there labeled “Report” includes abuse situations.

User Interface Psychology 101 tells us that if viewers don’t see an abuse reporting choice clearly present when viewing the video, it won’t even occur to many of them that it’s even possible to report an abusive video, so they’re unlikely to go digging around under “More” or anything else to find such a reporting system..

A side effect of my recommendation to make an obvious and clear abuse reporting link visible on the main YouTube play page (and similarly placed for other video services) would be the likelihood of a notable increase in the number of abuse reports, both accurate and not. (I suspect that the volume of reports may have been a key reason that abuse links have been increasingly “hidden” on these services’ interfaces over time).

This is not an inconsequential problem. Significant increases in abuse reports could swamp human teams working to evaluate them and to make the often complicated “gray area” determinations about whether or not a given reported video should stay online. Again, we’re talking about a massive scale of videos.

So there’s also a part two to my proposal.

I suggest that consideration be given to using volunteer or paid, “crowdsourced” populations of Internet users — on a large scale designed to average out variations in cultural attitudes for any given localizations — to act as an initial “filter” for specific classes of abuse reports regarding publicly available videos.

There are all kinds of complicated and rather fascinating details in even designing a system like this that could work properly, fairly, and avoid misuse. But the bottom line would be to help reduce to manageable levels the abuse reports that would typically reach the service provider teams, especially if significantly more reports were being made — and these teams would still be the only individuals who could actually choose to take specific reported videos offline.

Finding sufficient volunteers for such a system — albeit ones with strong stomachs considering what they’ll be viewing — would probably not prove to be particularly difficult. There are lots of folks out there who want to do their parts toward helping with these issues. Nor is it necessarily the case that only volunteers must fill these roles. This is important work, and finding some way to compensate them for their efforts could prove worthwhile for everyone concerned.

This is only a thumbnail sketch of the concept of course. But these are big problems that are going to require significant solutions. I fervently hope we can work on these issues ourselves before politicians and government bureaucrats impose their own “solutions” that will almost certainly do far more harm than good, with resulting likely untold collateral damage as well.

I believe that we can make serious inroads in these areas if we choose to do so.

One thing’s for sure though. If we don’t work to solve these problems ourselves, we’ll be giving governments yet another excuse for the deployment of ever more expansive censorship agendas that will ultimately muzzle us all.

Let’s try keep that nightmare from happening.

All the best to you and yours for the holidays!

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.