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Archives for December 2010

Woz pleads for free and open internet

Maggie Shiels | 10:55 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010

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Steve Wozniak is an out and out self proclaimed geek. As the co-founder of Apple, he has given the world products aimed at making our life easier and more fun.

Steve Wozniak

On the occasions I have interviewed him he is always bright and upbeat about the state of the industry and where it is going. Today he is feeling very differently about his view of the world.

In a lengthy letter in the distinguished magazine The Atlantic, Woz expresses a high degree of frustration and concern about the future of internet.

"The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away. Please, I beg you, open your senses to the will of the people to keep the Internet as free as possible."

Woz's plea is aimed at US regulators and legislators. His consternation follows a vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week to approve rules aimed at ensuring that all traffic is treated equally in the wired world and that broadband companies cannot favour anyone's content over another.

Rules for the wireless world have been watered down. It's a move that many net neutrality advocates I have spoken to are deeply worried about as more and more consumers turn to their smartphones and tablet devices to access the web for work, keeping in touch and entertainment.

Mr Wosniak wrote:

"We have very few government agencies that the populace views as looking out for them, the people. The FCC is one of these agencies that is still wearing a white hat. Not only is current action on Net Neutrality one of the most important times ever for the FCC, it's probably the most momentous and watched action of any government agency in memorable times in terms of setting our perception of whether the government represents the wealthy powers or the average citizen, of whether the government is good or is bad. This decision is important far beyond the domain of the FCC itself."

The full details of the order approved in a 3-2 majority vote this week will not be released for a few days, but two Democrat commissioners serving on the FCC expressed their distaste with the rules because they felt they did not go far enough to protect consumers. Michael Copps told the agency "universal access to broadband needs to be seen as a civil right...(though) not many people have talked about it that way".

Woz is clearly of the same mind:

"I frequently speak to different types of audiences all over the country. When I'm asked my feeling on Net Neutrality I tell the open truth. When I was first asked to 'sign on' with some good people interested in Net Neutrality my initial thought was that the economic system works better with tiered pricing for various customers. On the other hand, I'm a founder of the EFF and I care a lot about individuals and their own importance. Finally, the thought hit me that every time and in every way that the telecommunications careers have had power or control, we the people wind up getting screwed. Every audience that I speak this statement and phrase to bursts into applause.
 
"That's how the people think. They don't want this to encroach on their Internet freedom."

For a full read of the letter go here.

Privacy v transparency

Maggie Shiels | 12:02 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

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Online privacy has become topical over the last couple of weeks with efforts by the likes of the Federal Trade Commission
and the Commerce Department to opine on what the government needs to do to protect consumers.

The Commerce Department wants a new "privacy police office" while the FTC wants a "do not track" option for web surfers so that our every click is not recorded as we wander through cyberspace.

Technology companies are also coming up with solutions to allow consumers to protect their privacy online. Microsoft recently announced a new feature in the latest version of Internet Explorer to allow users to block tracking tools. The Mozilla Foundation has announced that a "do not track" option will also be in Firefox 4 when it is released early next year.

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, was roundly criticised early in the year when he declared the age of privacy as being over during an interview with the technology blog TechCrunch.

He was not the first to make such a pronouncement. Wikipedia cites private investigator Steve Rambam as one person who declared "privacy is dead - get over it".

Even the current debacle over the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks that has publicised thousands of US diplomatic cables underlines that not everything can remain hidden from view.

But what of those who work hard to protect these tenets so many hold near and dear? In the US the Electronic Frontier Foundation is one such organisation.

It was co-founded by John Perry Barlow, an American poet, essayist, retired cattle rancher, cyberlibertarian, political activist and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Mr Perry Barlow told me that privacy in the world of the internet has been changed forever and that there is a real battle between what companies/governments/institutions know about us and what we know about them.

"Privacy for the individual is going away and I don't think there is anyway to stop that," said Mr Perry Barlow.

John Perry Barlow: The Electronic Frontier Foundation tries to slow that process as much as possible because there are a lot of people who still believe they want privacy. I don't happen to be one of them personally.
 
I don't think it is safe to have a world where the individual has no privacy and the institutions go on being private. Transparency has to be universally applied. I think it is quite easy for people to give up their privacy if they can see what is going on inside all the institutions that regulate their lives.
 
Maggie Shiels: You talk about how people are quite willing to be transparent but are concerned that companies do not follow the same rules. Who in your opinion are the best and worst actors?
 
John Perry Barlow: I wouldn't want to try to make a list of the good guys and the bad guys in that area. For example, Google starts out with the premise that they are not going to be evil and have always, in terms of the personalities of the founders, been very much in favour of an open free internet. As they become more and more an advertising company and sensitive to the vagaries of the market, they are increasingly looking at closing [the internet] in very subtle ways and already in ways that I find disturbing.

For example, if you sat down at your computer and I sat down at mine and we entered the same search terms, we would get very different results in a way that is invisible to us, but which shapes the way in which we define the world around us - according to the desires and expectations of the people who write algorithms at Google. So there you have a good actor that is increasingly becoming the enemy; at the same time you have organisations like WalMart, that people think of as the enemy, that are trying to open up their processes increasingly for public oversight.
 
MS: What about Facebook, who are constantly in the firing line because they are trying to redefine privacy and how it is viewed?
 
JPB: I think there is a tension between privacy and freedom of expression. I have always known that and felt sensitive to it. I think Google are putting their money on freedom of expression rather than privacy and that causes no end of consternation at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; within that organisation we have people who are there because of the defence of privacy and people who are there because of free expression and they have to make their bargains.
 
MS: Is what Facebook is doing - trying to make us more transparent and arguably give up some privacy - a good thing?
 
JPB: I think that is inevitable and they are responding to a generational shift - one that I predicted a long time ago and that I am not surprised to see. I think that kids naturally want to be seen as they are. And I think this is generally the case. And I think that is a healthy societal impulse.
 
A lot of the impulse to privacy arose in the second world war when we were obsessively focused on a secretive power and we had moved into living conditions that were socially sealed from one another in a way that small towns were not.

The reason that privacy was never put into the constitution is that the people that wrote it didn't have any. They all lived in small agricultural towns where everybody knew everything. Ultimately I think that having personal secrets is a stimulus to social dysfunction and pathology and what we need to be working on, rather than maintaining privacy, is maintaining the ability to respect difference - different kinds of people.
 
People have all kinds of impulses and desires that don't necessarily harm somebody else but might not be according to norms - and what we have to be is less normative as a society.
 
I am not talking about tolerance because I think there is something condescending about tolerance. I am talking about acceptance and appreciation and I believe that one of the things that is going on with Facebook is the elevation of a kind of visibility that promotes understanding. And promotes respect ultimately.
 
I think in 20 years the fact that kids that have had pictures on their Facebook pages that make them look like kids is not going to be a real liability in terms of their ability to operate effectively in the workplace because everybody acted like a kid.
 
MS: That is the great fear: that these photos will remain on the internet and there will be a backlash for youngsters later in life.
 
JPB: Yes, but that depends a lot on the institutions. If the institutions are equally transparent then their ability to be censorious or judgemental about individuals' private behaviour becomes a lot more problematic. So I think the answer is precisely the one that Wikileaks is stimulating which is: let's see how you are before you set yourself up in some high moral position. Let's see what you are actually doing.
 
MS: So you are saying transparency makes our world a better place to live in?
 
JPB: I believe that. But only if it is bilateral. Only if it's both institutional and personal.
 
MS: And what about the companies of the world pushing us to be more transparent, like the Facebooks or the Googles that want us to share more of our personal information?
 
JPB: I don't know that Facebook is pushing us to be more transparent. It is making it possible and letting people make their own choices to a large extent. Now I don't think that Facebook is some kind of benign social actor. I mean they are also an advertising company - that is their business model. And they are monitoring behaviour of people with Facebook accounts very closely and they are forming that behaviour in various ways that may not even be obvious to them.

A novel experiment

Maggie Shiels | 08:15 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

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Libboo has a lofty aim - it wants change the way books are both written and read by creating what it describes as the world's first globally-written novel.

No tall order, but a project that has potential appeal to every wannabe scribe while perhaps angering those who make their living from writing.

Libboo is the brainchild of Chris Howard, a Brit who teaches at Harvard. In a nutshell, he is using crowdsourcing and a fancy algorithm to capture the imagination - in more ways than one.

There will be no single author but a multitude in what he has dubbed "the biggest literary experiment in history". He told the BBC:

"We realise there are a lot of people out there who like to write but perhaps don't enjoy writing great screeds and we thought how could we get these people to write something that would constitute something somebody would like to read.

"We are trying to do someting new by trying to bring writing in to the social world."

Mr Howard wants as many people as possible to write from 100 to 1,000 words. And fear not, ye humble novice: the first chapter will set the scene and act as the inspiration for the rest of the book.

The beta trial that has just started is a romance disaster called Flight of the Burning Stallion. Mr Howard is hoping around 1,000 people take part and has opened applications.

For the actual book he plans to publish, the inspiration is a murder mystery called PARADOX: The Curious Life, and Mysterious Death, of Mr Joseph Wheeler. Mr Howard has persuaded a leading scholar to pen its opening chapter.

Professor Richard Wiseman, who has garnered a reputation for research into unusual areas of psychology such as the paranormal, humour, luck, deception and the science of self-help, will set the tone and look to other writers to solve the mystery.

In both the beta and the experiment involving Professor Wiseman, hundreds or thousands of people can write the next chapter and everyone can read them. The same goes for each successive section which will undoubtedly result in the book veering off in different directions as writers take inspiration from parts that others have contributed.

Mr Howard describes it as being like a tree where people can navigate their way through the story by following different branches. Each branch is different and offers a new storyline.

The choice of chapters that end up published is where the computer science comes in; an algorithm discreetly tracks the most successful or popular routes through the tree:

"We want to target all those aspiring writers, whether it's people working in an office who have a spare 20 minutes or those who see themselves as potential authors.

"The success of the experiment is highly dependent on the number of people who take part. If we have too few people, the statistics will not be high enough to judge how people read through the tree."

Mr Howard stresses that he is not "trying to replace the way books are written today" but to "facilitate a new way for people to read and write in a way that is accessible for everyone".

He said that publishers are watching the experiment with interest. Money from the project will go to the Literacy Trust.

"Our entire ethos is to find new ways to write books. I see this as a new era," added Mr Howard.

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