Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tell the government what you think of ACTA

The government has asked for submissions about ACTA, the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, to be sent in by tomorrow. I’ve written one which you are welcome to read.

ACTA has the potential to change the way we use the Internet and to prevent future innovation on it. It’s hard to say for certain, because the draft texts are secret, To be fair to the New Zealand negotiators, they have (if the leaks are to be believed) argued to reduce ACTA’s impact – its collateral damage – on everyday use of the Internet. And they have asked some specific questions about what they should be trying to negotiate.

I’d like to suggest that as many people as possible send in a submission, even if it’s just “do not on any account agree to anything which would make ISPs liable for something they can’t control”. But ideally, take 20 minutes, review this page, then send your arguments and views to by close of business tomorrow.

posted by colin at 1:53 pm  

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How valuable is information?

Oliver Bell has posted a thought-provoking article called Information is Currency. He and I discussed some of these ideas over a beverage or two one night in Wellington recently. Reading through Oliver’s article, I find some things to agree and others to disagree with, so I’m taking the time here to write a reflective response.

The value of information depends on several things, including its scarcity and its usefulness to the potential end-user. I’m left wondering if there is information that is inherently valueless. I can think of examples of obscure trivia, but someone, somewhere, always seems to care. It can be argued (and Oliver presumably is arguing this) that search engines monetize obscure information by using it to sell eyeballs to advertisers.

Of course, search engines don’t sell the information itself. They sell a way of discovering it. The information itself has generally already been published for free. The information has value based on the network effect, i.e. that its a published in a standard form using the World Wide Web. The search engines are very much part of this system that imputes value to freely-published information.

So, then, the monetary value of freely-published information derives as much from the great mass of other web sites, from the search engines and from the Internet itself as it does from the information.

However, I’m interested as much in what we can do with information in bulk as I am in in assigning a numerical value to individual chunks. If I write a piece of software, say, is its optimal value realized if I sell licenses to use it or if I simply publish it for others to use as they see fit without monetary recompense? The answer to that question depends partly on who recognizes the monetary value. If we look at value to the community of computer users as a whole, allowing anyone to use the software will have the greatest value. If I look at it in terms of personal revenue-maximization for that piece of software, I would presumably retain the source code as a secret and sell licences to use it on the basis of my perception of each user’s ability to pay. This applies to any information goods, i.e. things that can be copied without using up physical resources.

There are two components to value of information in the Internet age – value derived from maintaining its scarcity and value derived from making it available. Both are highly dependent on usefulness. The former is usually captured by the publisher, the latter accrues to the community.

There may, as Oliver suggests, one day be a market for all kinds of personal information. The individual worth of each piece is likely to be very low. The worth to the community as a whole of pooling its information is likely to represent the major part of its technology and its culture.

posted by colin at 3:48 pm  

Friday, March 19, 2010

A warm welcome to ACTA negotiators

As is now well-known, the next round of negotiations for the controversial international treaty ACTA will take place here in Wellington on 12th-16th of April. Representatives of 13 countries and the European Commission will be in our city for that week.

To the ACTA negotiators: I bid you welcome. I hope you enjoy our lovely city (hilarious video), and that you take a few days or weeks to explore some more of our beautiful country. You will find most New Zealanders to be warm and friendly people who love to show New Zealand to visitors.

I’ve railed against many aspects of ACTA before – especially the secrecy around it – but that doesn’t change my desire as a proud New Zealander to welcome guests to our country. I’m sure all New Zealanders involved in the wider ACTA debate will agree with me.

posted by colin at 9:09 am  

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Today on the radio: Do we deserve the Internet?

It’s my last time on Radio New Zealand National for a while, and I thought I’d use it to address some more a philosophical question than I often do. I’ve written a separate post with my ideas below.

I’ll be on air after the 11am news. You can listen live, or soon afterwards you will be able to pull the podcast or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

posted by colin at 11:05 pm  

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  

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The gathering storm

I make no apology for using Sir Winston Churchill’s title for the first volume of his history of the Second World War to describe the culture war between those who would capture ideas for their exclusive use and those who would disseminate them widely.

It’s not a straightforward issue. On the one hand, most of us would accept that there is value in providing an incentive to create clever things that ultimately benefit many people. That’s the public good argument for copyright and patents. On the other, our culture and our technology are built on the work and ideas of others and controlling people’s access effectively controls our development as a species.

These are important matters that need a global consensus. What I’m seeing at the moment is an attempt to enclose the commons of ideas for the benefit of a few and to detriment of us all. That’s been the case for a century at least, but the arrival of the Internet has pushed things to a whole new level.

That brings me to ACTA, the treaty being negotiated in secret by our government and others, which is at least partly about the interaction of copyright and the Internet. I’ve railed against the secrecy around ACTA before, because it prevents the ordinary people whose lives will be affected from having a say in it.

There have been some remarkable revelations about ACTA in the last few days. Firstly, there have been three leaks. The text of the Internet chapter, an analysis of some countries’ views on transparency of the agreement, and an analysis of each country’s negotiating position on the Internet chapter of the draft ACTA agreement. We don’t know where the leaks are coming from, but it’s clear that many people negotiating the agreement are unhappy with the insistence of secrecy coming from (we now know) the US, South Korea and Denmark.

Nat Torkington has analysed the New Zealand positions from the latest link. New Zealand’s negotiators are pushing for clarity, for reasonableness and for transparency. Good on them. It looks as though New Zealand is making its view more felt than many other countries. Even so, what we end up with, of course, is not just up to New Zealand.

People in our government are listening about the lack of transparency. Our negotiators have just issued a call for submissions on some points of the Internet chapter ACTA by 31 March. This, coupled with the leaks, offers ordinary people a chance for some kind of say. So does the PublicACTA event to be hosted by InternetNZ on April 10th, right before the next round of ACTA negotiations which are to be held here in Wellington the following week.

It’s good that we have found out more about ACTA – even if it is mostly through unacknowledged “leaks”. It’s good that New Zealand is pushing for transparency. We need to empower our negotiators and those in like-minded countries to reject the extreme positions that some of the other countries are taking. Do consider sending a submission, even if it’s just “the current model works well, don’t change it”. I’ll write some more detailed points and publish them here well before the deadline.

However, it’s still appalling that a treaty that will affect everyone is being negotiated in secret, with an agenda being pushed by one industry based mainly in one country which won’t let the secrecy be lifted for fear that other countries’ citizens won’t let them stay in the negotiations.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We’ve had a glimpse of it. Let’s throw the curtains wide.

posted by colin at 11:49 am  

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