Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Internet: Too good for us?

The Internet is an unmediated form of communication between humans all around the planet. It was designed that way and so far it has stayed that way. It’s different from the telephone, which allows targeted one to one communications, and from broadcasting which is one to many, although it does provide those as well. Through blogging, twitter, even email lists, the Internet has allowed us to build many-to-many communications systems. That’s a first.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Internet is the greatest engine of prosperity since since, say, the telephone or even since mass transportation. It allows us all to interact with people and business around the world without using up fossil fuels and personal resources in travel. It provides businesses with a customer communications channel connected directly to their back-end systems. On the Internet, life is good. And, as I have said on numerous occasions, it only got that way because the Internet is an open conduit for anything people can think of.

It has been recognized by lawmakers for years that openness is the key to the Internet’s usefulness. But, increasingly, that is coming to an end. The Chinese government routinely censors its domestic Internet and forces all Internet traffic entering and leaving the country through a giant gateway it controls. The US allows private companies to remove material placed on the Internet by third parties on accusation of copyright infringement. Australia looks likely to implement a national Internet filter in the name of pornography suppression. The UK is considering a “Digital Economy Bill” which would force Internet disconnections and filter access to websites. Even the New Zealand government is looking at a limited filtering system to combat child pornography.

All this brings me to my point: Can we, humankind, actually stand an open communications medium? One that lets all of us talk to all of us? Along with the huge list of economic and social benefits that brings? Observing the actions of government world wide, I’d have to answer “no”.

It appears that the Internet is just too open and too useful for humanity to come to terms with. Since the Internet is just a communications tool, this means that we, as a species, can’t tolerate open communications between all our members. That’s why I question whether the Internet is just too good for us, whether we deserve it at all.

But then, what can you expect from a species that can’t organize itself to operate in an environment of finite resources? There is no functioning mechanism for us to deal with global environment destruction or fossil fuel exhaustion, for instance. You don’t have to accept anthropogenic climate change to agree that we don’t have a way of dealing with it.

So, then, we are a deeply flawed race careering off a cliff of our own making. Does that mean we shouldn’t fight – that we should just eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? I don’t think so. For me, each of us who recognizes the problems should act as best we can to hold a mirror to human activities. That means calling governments and industries when they try to hold progress to ransom. It means arguing for cooperative approaches to dealing issues that face us. It means not hiding our heads in the sand about limited resources.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But until we at least accept the questions, neither will any of us.

How we deal with the Internet and its ability for us all to communicate will the question I posed in the title: is the Internet too good for us?

posted by colin at 9:40 am  

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why censoring the Internet won’t work

Governments around the world are trying to get to grips with the notion that the Internet allows unfettered communications between individuals. This is a threat to almost all societies, and leads to “moral” arguments to control people’s access to, and activities on the Internet. It’s hard to draw a hard and fast line globally about what is moral to suppress and what is not, unless you take the view that the sharing of any kind of information is acceptable under any circumstances. I don’t take that view; there are some things in my view which are reprehensible or harmful and I am happy that my government tries to deal with them. The main area that comes to mind is child abuse images (CAI), a.k.a child pornography. However, agreeing that governments have the right to control some kinds of information on the Internet does leave us open to the “slippery slope” argument, which we have already seen operating across the government where the Australian government has tried to censor access to public information site Wikileaks because it published a list of sites already censored by the Australian government.

There are various measures available to Internet censors. China, for instance, runs the so-called “Great Firewall” – a single point of access for all Internet traffic entering and leaving the country. Centralized national firewalls offer a high level of control, but they find it hard to deal with traffic which is encrypted (as a lot of Internet traffic is, routinely). Almost invariably, they have to block a lot of material which is wider than their intended purpose, just to be sure. You can’t allow free access to Google if you don’t your population to even be able to search for specific concepts. Another issue is that the engineering for the great firewall gets quite problematic. It needs to be able to pass a great deal of traffic very quickly while filtering out the “bad” stuff. Finally, there needs to be a staff who are dedicated to controlling the filter, adding new sites to it, perhaps removing old ones, and generally dealing with issues it throws up.

A more limited technical measure is to control the Domain Name System (DNS) in the country. This means that people typing the address of a “bad” site into their browser would instead get a page saying “naughty naughty” or some such. In fact, if they knew the IP number to go to – and it wouldn’t be hard for a determined person to find this – they will evade this form of censorship altogether. This technique would involve its own engineering challenges as well as the problem of managing the list of bad sites.

And deciding what gets blocked is the core of the problem with automated, technical measures like the two described above. There’s no way for the general public to inspect the list of what gets blocked – if you publish the list, you are just publishing a list of sites that you don’t want people to go to. If you don’t publish the list, there is no accountability that governments will only block CAI (or whatever they have said they will). The list can and will expand for several reasons: incompetence, in the case of the Queensland dentist’s site blocked by the Australian filter; a desire to protect the filter itself (Wikileaks); and an extension or what we regard as repugnant or harmful, but don’t necessarily want a public debate about.

There is another technique that governments use to control what people do on the Internet. That is, simply, to watch what is going on within their country and apply real-world sanctions to people breaking the law. All countries do this to a greater or lesser extent. In New Zealand, for instance, the Department of Internal Affairs looks for images of child abuse (i.e. child pornography) and prosecutes people involved in making or trading them. The recent charges brought against a blogger for allegedly breaking a suppression order are another example. This approach seems the natural one for an open society like New Zealand to take. It relies on humans to detect and discern illegal activity rather than machines. That’s how our court system works. It’s also how law enforcement works. We don’t require people to have licences for cameras; of course not, cameras are widely used for a variety of entirely legal purposes. We prosecute people who use cameras to break the law. It should be the same for computers and the Internet.

To summarise: filtering the Internet is problematic technically, but most of all it is incompatible with a democratic open society. Prosecute the wrongdoers but leave the Internet alone.

posted by colin at 4:54 pm  

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Internet – empowering your community

Today I’m talking at the Engaging Your Community conference at Massey University in Wellington. I’m going to asking and answering questions like “where did the Internet come from?” and “why is it uniquely suited for community use?”. I’ll look at posting a version of my speaker notes here soon.

When I was writing this presentation, what struck me most was that the values that have made the Internet successful – openness, thrift, lack of centralised ownership – are exactly those you find in community organisations. It’s no coincidence that the Internet grew to dominate the online world, rather than the privately-owned Compuserve or Prodigy.

I’m hoping to meet a lot of engaged and enthusiastic people at the session today. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

posted by colin at 5:49 am  

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Google Book Settlement: Black Hole or World Library?

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about copyright matters again – about whether the proposed Google Book Settlement is a black hole or cultural opportunity for the whole world. And why music companies want to grossly exaggerate the number of illegal downloads.

You can listen live after the 11am news, read on for my speaking notes, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 8:34 pm  

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Software Freedom Day

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about Software Freedom Day, what it’s celebrating and how you can enjoy it. There will be events in several parts of the country.

The site for the Wellington event is here, the Waikato one here, and if you know of others please put them into the comments.

I’ll be on just after the 11am news. Listen live, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:27 pm  

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mr Jackson goes to Wellington

On Thursday I presented my submission on Software Patents to the Commerce Select Committee of Parliament. It was a fascinating experience, and one which is open to all New Zealanders.

posted by colin at 2:24 pm  

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Software Patents – end the madness!

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about the deranged world of software patents, where someone can claim that an idea they had five years ago suddenly means that entire industry owes them a fortune. I’ll be on after the 11am news.

Read on for my speaking notes, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:06 pm  

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Setting Government Information Free

Today on Radio New Zealand Natonal after the 11am news I talked about the why and the how of setting government information free so that we can all benefit. There’s been a lot of work done on this in many countries, including New Zealand, and some useful things are starting to happen. In a few weeks time a bunch of folk in New Zealand are giving up their weekend to attend the first ever New Zealand Open Government Data Barcamp and Hackfest.

You can read on for my speaking notes, or download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:10 am  

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Prediction is hard

…especially about the future. This week on Radio New Zealand National I’ll be talking about old technology predictions that didn’t turn out so well, and making a few of my own.

I’ll be on after the 11am news tomorrow, Thursday 23rd July. You can read on for some of my speaking notes, or download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 12:06 am  

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Moped Diaries

I’m just about to leave Atiu, an island in the Cook Islands. I’ve had a fantastic few days here, and I’ve also had an insight into life in a small isolated community in the Pacific.

Atiu has less than 500 permanent inhabitants, plus at the moment 12 vistors. Put another way, visiting with my immediate family has increased the number of people on the island by a percentage point.

The people are very welcoming. I’m staying at the Atiu Villas, run by expatriate kiwi Dr Roger Malcolm and his wife Kura Malcolm, who is from Atiu. Everyone greets you as you pass them, and people are uniformly friendly. Nobody locks anything, and keys are normally left in vehicles. People all seem to be bilingual in Cook Islands Maori and English.

posted by colin at 6:03 am  
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