Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Retaking the Net

This Saturday (29th October 2011) is the RetakeTheNet Bar Camp in the Wellington Town Hall.

I’ve talked about RtN before. It’s a group of people who are uncomfortable about the extent of control of the Net being exerted by governments and companies, and who want to do concrete things to imp roe the situation. This last point is the kicker – anyone can yell a bit, but doing actual projects is a lot harder. We are trying to the use the features of the Net that have made it so successful, its openness and its innovation culture, to find ways to do things more freely.

The bar camp is for people to come and contribute ideas, meet some fantastic people, and just maybe get energized enough to actually do stuff. There will be sessions through the day starting at 10am (best get get there a bit early) and going on until an after party, starting around 4:30.

There are going to be some very cool people there. And, you never know, we just might make a difference! Come if you want to be part of that.

posted by colin at 7:30 am  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking back the Net

The Net used to be under the radar of governments and corporates. Then it got a lot bigger, governments paid it attention and large companies moved in. Some were beneficial, some weren’t and some were neutral. But the ethos of the individual Net user running the whole show got diluted along the way.

It’s easy to lament these things. It’s more fun to do something. A group of us are running some projects under the heading Retake The Net to try to put some power back into the hands of ordinary users. Yes, you and me. Retake the Net is putting together a Bar Camp for 29 October 2011.

The project I’m most closely associated with is called the Policy Auction. (That’s a working title and it will change when we launch.) The basic idea is to provide a platform where people can promote policies – things they think the gummint should do – and put up real virtual currency against them. Hence the auction. Maybe it will make a splash – that’s the general idea. And the timing right before an election is no accident.

About half a dozen people are giving up their time to build this thing, and it’s going to be very cool. But not as cool as it would be if you helped, too. We want to hear from Java geeks, visual designers and comms folk.

There’s a meeting of the Retake The Net crew at Betty’s in Wellington tomorrow night (3rd August). I do hope to see you there!

posted by colin at 9:29 pm  

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Broadband as a Human Right (updated)

One year ago Finland passed a law declaring access to a broadband Internet connection to be a legal right. What does that mean? There’s a discussion of this over on Red Alert, after Jonathon Penney delivered a really interesting talk at Victoria University entitled “Open Connectivity, Open Data”.

Incidentally, it’s really good to see a major political party actually trying to develop policy in the open on the Internet. I’d love to see them both doing it. Where are you, National?

I wrote a comment on the Red Alert blog trying to explain what I think statements like “Broadband is a Human Right” mean. Here’s an expanded and tidied up version.


posted by colin at 2:32 pm  

Monday, June 28, 2010

Good in parts

I spent today at the Microsoft Open Government Unconference in Wellington. It was an interesting experience. On the one hand, I got the impression of a company trying to weave something from the whole “open government, open data” thread which is being spun out of a genuine desire by government folk to share things, and on the other hand there was the disconnect of trying to script the agenda for an “unconference” – a contradiction if ever there was.

posted by colin at 11:56 pm  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Can anything save OOXML?

Apparently not. Let me explain.

Two years ago I went as part of the New Zealand delegation to a meeting in Geneva called to determine the fate of a proposed new ISO/IEC document format standard, called colloquially OOXML or Office Open XML. Despite its name this standard had nothing to do with the OpenOffice word processing and spreadsheet program – which, in fact, uses a well established ISO standard format called ODF. Rather, OOXML was a an entirely different format invented by Microsoft for use by its Office 2007 suite.  Microsoft was very keen that OOXML be made an ISO standard, taking a full page ad in the Dominion Post claiming all kinds of benefits, including, mystifyingly, “provid[ing] choice about which software we use to exchange to documents” and “fostering innovation”.

The OOXML specification weighed in at 6,500 pages. At the time of the meeting in February 2008, national standards bodies had already voted not to standardize it. Their objections covered a huge range of technical problems with the standard, concerns that the standard might be encumbered with patent claims, and a view among some that setting multiple standards for the same thing would hinder the ability of people and businesses to swap documents between different word processors. The meeting I went to was intended to deal with the technical concerns.

By the time we arrived at the meeting 1,500 pages of changes had been proposed to the draft standard. The meeting, which had about 50 countries with an average of three attendees each, then tried to work its way through these changes to see if they could ‘fix’ the technical problems in the draft standard. Needless to say, it didn’t get a long way through and ended up voted to accept a lot of the proposed changes en masse.

posted by colin at 7:15 am  

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  

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  

Monday, January 25, 2010

Time for some disinfectant

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, or so wrote Judge Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court in a book in 1914. That quote begins: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases”. Quite.

That brings me again to the disingenuously-named Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, whose contents the public are not allowed to know even though our governments are rushing headlong to sign up to it. It’s clear that this treaty isn’t just about physical goods, but contains a significant section about the Internet.

Make no mistake, the provisions of ACTA will require its signatory governments to limit people’s freedoms. There wouldn’t be any point to it otherwise. And, even though ACTA has been under negotiation since 2008, we still don’t know what’s in it! So, we have the unappealing spectacle of a collection of mostly democratic governments negotiating away their citizens’ rights without letting those citizens know what is being talked about.

Those who promote ACTA say that there’s a lot of information publicly available. That’s a curious kind of ‘available’ from where I’m sitting. We don’t have the draft text. On the basis of leaks, we believe it contains provisions to cut off people’s Internet similar to those rejected after public protest in New Zealand.

Some governments are providing information on ACTA by public briefing. The New Zealand government recently provided a face-to-face briefing to selected people. There weren’t any media in the room, and they wouldn’t allow people to blog or tweet. That seems to be a common requirement around ACTA. Someone who tried to tweet in a recent Mexico ACTA briefing was thrown out by security. Claims that the text of ACTA is no more secret than other trade agreements have been shown to be rubbish. Even the EU Parliament is demanding transparency.

Unsurprisingly, it is only the general public, the ones whose rights get curtailed, who don’t get to see the draft treaty. Industry lobbyists – those who stand to benefit from restricting people’s freedom on the Internet – have a process for getting hold of the text under strict non-disclosure agreements. Cynics might suggest that it’s those lobbyists who are driving the treaty in the first place. It’s no wonder, really, that those who would curtail everyone’s freedoms don’t want us to see that coming before it’s too late. If citizens knew what their governments were doing the treaty they might pressure their governments to get it thrown out.

Maintaining secrecy so your citizens can’t find out what law you intend to pass until it’s too late is a breathtaking abuse of process. Citizen access to the law-making process is part of the social contract underlying modern democracies. Breaking that is just plain wrong, and I’m sure most legislators know that. More pragmatically, pushing through anti-citizen laws under the cover of secrecy can only lead to further undermining the trust of governments by their citizens and disengagement from the political process. It won’t pass unnoticed that the nations can come together and fail to make a meaningful agreement about climate change but they can happily work away in secret to agree to advantage an industry at the expense of everyone’s freedoms.

I’m going to finish with another American quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.

posted by colin at 5:00 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  

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Uncle Sam likes Free Software

Two interesting things came out of Washington DC in the last couple of days – both endorsements of free software by Uncle Sam.

In the more widely published of the two announcements, the Whitehouse has gone to the free and open source Drupal content management system, replacing the commercial one installed some years ago. All the Whitehouse websites including have been changed over.

There are stories like this one about the move all over the web. The reasons the Whitehouse staff give are that they are moving to modern, state-of-the-art platform that will allow them a lot more flexibility in how they engage with citizens. They also expect greater security of the software through the open source development model.

In the other story, the US Department of Defense has just issued a policy statement (pdf) telling all its component parts that they should be seriously evaluating open source alternatives. The reasons they give are reduced cost of ownership (well, d’oh!), better security, and that the ability to modify the software gives them the chance to alter it to meet their changing needs.

The DoD also takes aim at that hoary old chestnut, the notion that the GPL might somehow force a company that was was altering free software for its own internal needs to republish the resulting source code. The company can chose to do that, but it absolutely doesn’t have to, unless it wants to distribute software outside the organization.

The real story here is not that open source software is being more widely used, and used by some famous and influential people. It’s that free software released under the GPL – as Drupal is – is more than acceptable for government work; it’s positively encouraged for its low cost, high security, and flexibility.

To close – I’ll alter a slogan published by Data General when IBM entered its main market:

People are saying that the US Government’s endorsement of free software will legitimise it. The bastards say: Welcome!

posted by colin at 8:30 pm  
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