Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘The Internet and the Web’ Category

National Broadband Plan, and HWCKL#2

Saturday, March 13th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A pair of stories from today’s papers put the promise and peril of the digital explosion squarely before us.

The FCC is set to release its National Broadband Plan on Tuesday. There is good reporting on it in both the New York Times and Computerworld.The key catch phrase is “100 million squared”—get 100Mb/s broadband into 100 million homes by 2020. This is NOT an overly ambitious goal, though it may look to some as extravagant as it must once have looked to bring electricity, and then telephone service, to every rural farmhouse in America. Electricity and telephony were not just conveniences of civilization to which some political theorist thought agrarians should have the same access as city dwellers. They were engines of workplace efficiency and economic growth. The nation made investments, and supported private investments, in connecting Americans to these resources because it was good in the long run for everyone for everyone to be part of the network. So it is with broadband Internet today. Nor are the numbers ridiculous. Remember, Google is accepting applications to bring gigabit broadband, ten times faster, to some lucky community.

So the connectivity plan is all good. And it is also good that the plan anticipates broadband Internet being the mother of all media in the future, gobbling up telephone and television.

But somebody has to pay for it, and this is a lousy time to be asking taxpayers to foot the bill. If you think that the incumbent Internet providers are going to do the job anyway, think again. Verizon is slowing down its deployment of FIOS broadband. There is not enough competition to stir demand (though I would love to think that the Google initiative would create some).

The FCC can collect some money by re-directing the Universal Service Fund, the proceeds from a tax that supports telephone service to those Kansas farms. But a big chunk of the money has to come from elsewhere. And a likely candidate is spectrum auctions: Recovering underutilized parts of the spectrum from incumbent broadcasters, putting the spectrum up for auction to raise money, and also using some of the spectrum for connectivity and some for so-called “unlicensed” uses. Excellent.

The incumbent broadcasters, needless to say, hate this part. They see the writing on the wall and have their own plans for a vertically integrated Internet. The proposed Comcast-NBC merger is a perfect example of that: Put the content provider in bed with the content carrier. If that sounds like the way forward for connectivity, read the section of B2B where we talk about how Western Union’s exclusive deal with the Associated Press worked out for news dissemination in the 19th century.

Moreover, the incumbent broadcasters don’t see any reason to give up any of their spectrum. Except, of course, to paraphrase Scott Brown, it isn’t their spectrum. It’s the people’s spectrum. All the laws about the broadcast spectrum are clear about that.

What isn’t mentioned in the current reporting on the Broadband Plan is Net Neutrality. That may be just one too many battles for the FCC to take on—the scalding letter it received from the telecomms may have scared the Commission.

Now for the bad news.

The Texas Board of Education has adopted new standards for the state’s Social Studies Curriculum, rewriting history through a series of party-line votes on individual amendments. OK to mention Martin Luther King, but you have to talk about the Black Panthers in the same breath. Phyllis Shlafly and the Moral Majority are required subjects. “Capitalism,” curiously, is out—you have to say “free enterprise system.”

But this is the worst:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

Oh my god, if you will pardon the expression (and even if you won’t). Aquinas unseats Jefferson in the Texas school system?

First of all, though the story says that the new curriculum “will put a conservative stamp on history,” this isn’t conservatism. It’s revisionism with a political agenda. These so-called conservatives are simply finding common cause with the reviled critical studies movement, skeptical that any ideals represented as products of the life of the mind are anything but a political power play. There should not be more dentists than historians on a panel rewriting history.

But where is the Bits angle in this story? It’s in this paragraph:

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks. In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual state.

So I guess this is good news. If the citizens of Texas want their children to be ignorant, the digital revolution has created the technological support for their preferred version of American history. The textbook publishers no longer have to aim for the consensus view.

No more E pluribus, unum, in other words. We can just stay the many rather than becoming one through communication and education.

Homophily rules. Universal connectivity won’t bring us together; it will simply create the opportunity for likeminded souls, no matter how extreme and ridiculous their views, to come together in their own ignorant corners of the Internet. Or the nation. And that is How We Could Know Less, #2.

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedom

Sunday, January 24th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I’ve now both listened to and read Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom. (That’s a link to the State Dept. home page, where it is still featured. I imagine it will move off shortly.)

It’s a good speech, I think. At least it was good enough to annoy the Chinese. A columnist for the People’s Daily snorted that Google had been reduced to an “ideological tool” of the US government and noted, correctly, that Google is losing the competition with the native Chinese search engine, Baidu. (Note: You can compare for yourself the search results returned by the US version of Google, the Chinese version of Google, and Baidu. But be aware that the link for Chinese Google takes you to servers inside the US, while the link for Baidu takes you, I think, to China. The result is that you may not see, the Chinese version, as the Chinese experience it. When I tried Googling “Falun Gong” inside China, I lost the Internet connection to my hotel room.)

The China Daily simply denies that Clinton is telling the truth. [A Foreign Ministry spokesman] “said the speech indicated China restricts internet freedom. ‘It is a far cry from the truth,’ he said.” And the People’s Daily accuses the US of hypocrisy. “It is common practice for countries, including the United States, to take necessary measures to administer the Internet according to their own laws and regulations. The Internet is also restricted in the United States when it comes to information concerning terrorism, porn, racial discrimination and other threats to society.” The paper goes on to cite Steve Ballmer as one of the good guys. “Noting that most countries exert some sort of control over information, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said Friday his company must comply with the laws and customs of any country where it does business.

In fact, in her speech, Clinton, after stirring invocations of the US First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, conceded the point about Internet freedom having its limits. Here is the crucial paragraph:

Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence, such as the agents of al-Qaida who are, at this moment, using the internet to promote the mass murder of innocent people across the world. And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues are both growing challenges that the international community must confront together. And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.

Now that passage contains a remarkable juxtaposition. A grand buildup.  A concession that there are limits to expressive freedom. A citation of the example of mass terrorism. OK, I’m listening. The next examples are the usual nondiscrimination categories, presented as hate-speech categories. Now I am getting worried; what counts as hate speech is so often in the ears of the listener. To be sure, it is easy to imagine a Tibetan rant about Chinese oppression that the Chinese could reasonably tag as ethnic hate speech. This is beginning to sound like a list of exceptions to freedom big enough to put almost anyone in shackles. Then there is the “issue” of anonymous speech. Secretary Clinton has nothing good to say about it, and then in a flat declaration puts Osama Bin Laden in the same box with millions of American teenagers—in the box of “those use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property.” At this point I think the speech loses its operative edge. It leads inevitably to the conclusion that the speech control tools aren’t the problem—they are necessary in fact—only the way they are used.

So I finished the speech feeling good; it’s certainly better than a speech that emphasized cooperation at all costs, and that might have been expected. On the other hand it leaves me unconvinced that the administration actually has a consistent point of view on cyber-freedom.

One ironic footnote. The streaming video comes via a service called Brightcove. If you click on the “Information” icon on the video window while the speech is playing, you get Brightcove’s who-knew? privacy policy, which explains that “By using the Site, you agree to the terms and conditions of this Privacy Policy. If you do not agree to the terms and conditions of this Privacy Policy, please do not use the Site.” Much of the privacy policy does not apply to visits to the site, which requires no login and hence generates no personal information. But of course viewing the Internet Freedom video does send Brightcove your IP address, which Brightcove treats as “Non-Personal Information.” And, it says, “we reserve the right to share Non-Personal Information with affiliates and other third parties, for any purpose.” So Brightcove could, for example, sell Harvard University the information that I watched the Internet Freedom video via the wired jack in my Harvard office. Freedom does have its limits, but I might have hoped they fell a bit farther out than that.

Google: We’re Re-Thinking China

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I wrote in Blown to Bits about Google’s decision to do business in China, in spite of the need for censorship at the direction of the Chinese regime, notwithstanding Google’s mission statement about making information universally accessible. I thought this was the wrong decision, and I have argued that position publicly (winning against Esther Dyson, among others).

Google has now announced that in light of massive cyber-attacks on its servers from China, including attacks aimed at compromising the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents, it is reconsidering its decision to censor, and is even asking whether it can continue doing business in China at all.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

This is a huge decision. While I disagreed with Google’s decision to cooperate with the Chinese censors, I respected the fact that they couldn’t lightly walk away from the biggest business opportunity in the world. I also respected the fact that even the limited search they were offering enlightened many people about things of which they would not otherwise be aware (except that they could always use Baidu, the Chinese search engine).

So Google gets lots of credit for their promise to monitor the information freedom conditions in China and for standing on the principle that even if cooperation with evil is sometimes justified in the interest of a larger good, there are limits, and China has breached those limits.

In the war for digital liberty, chalk this up as a battle won for freedom.

Zuckerberg to the World: Privacy? Forget About It

Sunday, January 10th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A year and a half ago, I wrote an opinion piece entitled How Facebook Spells the End of Privacy. Now Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says he’s sorry he ever built those privacy options into Facebook in the first place. Explaining the company’s decision in September to make all kinds of information public that users used to have the option to keep private—their friends list and the list of pages they subscribe to in particular — Zuckerberg explained,,

A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

Zuckerberg says that people are more comfortable sharing and being open than they used to be, and Facebook is just catching up with where society has already gone. Of course this is nonsensical reasoning, unworthy of someone who took a course in computational theory from me (yes, he did). The claim that a lot more people today do X than not-X is no reason to make everyone do X. As Marshall Kirkpatrick observes in the story linked to above, money is a more likely explanation. Having made Facebook nearly ubiquitous, Zuckerberg now sees more money in encouraging (or requiring) people to give up more information about themselves.

There are reasons of personal safety for people to maintain some privacy. There are reasons people want to keep multiple identities (personal and professional, for example) isolated from each other. And there is the big argument, which I put forward in Chapter 2, that privacy is socially progressive—not in the political sense, just in the obvious way, it is easier to think differently, and act differently, if you do so with trusted friends than in the full view of the entire world. I wonder if Zuckerberg would say the same thing about people being more open about everything if he spent a few months in China or in Iran.

The Scarcest Internet Resource?

Saturday, January 9th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

You can’t get the bits if you don’t have a pipe big enough to get them to you. Because of the engineering, political, and geographic challenges of the Internet pipe problem in the US, there has been a lot of attention focused on broadband diffusion — getting high speed connectivity to lots of people. Of course, businesses compete on their ability to deliver bandwidth — at least where there is competition at all. Mostly in the phone space, it seems, though the Comcast-Verizon FIOS argument certainly generates a lot of advertising revenue locally.

But there is another important Internet resource we almost never think about: IP addresses. Or IPv4 addresses to be precise, the 32-bit unique numbers that identify where the bits are supposed to go when any kind of message is sent to your computer. If you go to WhatIsMyIp or any of a number of other sites, you can see your own, shown as four numbers, each less than 256, separated by dots. That’s about 4 billion possibilities in all, a number that seemed unimaginably extravagant at a time that computers were huge.

Today, with computers in everything, even your wristwatch could use its own IP address, and plenty of devices smaller than that. The pool of IP addresses, which were divided into blocks and given out to nations, and within nations to companies and universities and governments, is being rapidly depleted. Not quite as rapidly as had been feared, but still: A story yesterday reported that there are only 625 days of IP addresses left, at the rate the reservoir is draining.

Various things can be done to stretch the supply. Some parties who got more addresses than they really need may be willing to surrender them voluntarily. NAT technology allows multiple connections to use a single IP address, but there are costs to that.

Sooner or later, we are going to run out of addresses. The solution is already known — IPv6, which uses 128-bit addresses. The code is already in the operating systems of computers being shipped today. But the switchover is likely to be hell — think of the switch of broadcast television to digital, with granny suddenly unable to get her soaps. Except that this switch will have a deadline attached to it.

624 days and counting, according to the current estimate …

No, We Really Don’t Want This

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I am of libertarian leanings, and I always hate acknowledging that we sometimes need the government to save us from ourselves. I am of two minds about laws against cell phone use while driving — even after a near-death experience las week, when a driver coming down the street in the opposite direction skidded on the ice into my lane of traffic, stopping inches from the front of my car — and never took her cell phone from her ear. (Perhaps she was reasoning correctly that her car was much, much bigger than mine.)

But we really need some regulation on the bright idea of Internet access from our cars’ instrument panels. As the New York Times puts it, Despite Risks, Internet Creeps Onto Car Dashboards.

Not hard to figure how this happened. We should have seen it coming. The technology is getting cheaper. We love the gadgets in our cars, and will trade a perfectly good vehicle for one with a better navigation system, something we never knew we needed. So bingo, we have touch screens with handwriting recognition, so the driver can scribble the name of the band he’s going to hear and get some news flashes about it.

Car regulators, please, please save us from ourselves. Or rather, save the partially sane among us from the idiots who will think they can multitask infinitely with their hands and brains.

Checkmate by World of Warcraft

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a huge online fantasy war game, with more than ten million accounts. Here is a nice holiday-weekend “bits” story: a man with an arrest warrant out on him in Indiana for two years on drug charges has been arrested in Ottawa, Canada. The crucial information as to his whereabouts was provided by Blizzard Entertainment, the game company that runs WoW. As Matt Robertson, the investigator in the county sheriff’s department, tells the Kokomo (IN) Perspective,

“You hear stories about you can’t get someone through the Internet. Guess what? You can. I just did. Here you are, playing World of Warcraft, and you never know who you’re playing with.”

Robertson seems to have take a lot of small steps to put the story together. A childhood friend of the suspect said he had moved to Canada — good to know, of course, but making many of the standard law enforcement protocols useless. Somewhere along the line a tip came in that he was a WoW fan, so the investigator sent a subpoena for the suspect’s records — a transnational subpoena with no legal force at all.

“They don’t have to respond to us, and I was under the assumption that they wouldn’t,” said Roberson. “It had been three or four months since I had sent the subpoena. I just put it in the back of my mind and went on to do other things. Then I finally got a response from them. They sent me a package of information. They were very cooperative. It was nice that they were that willing to provide information.”

That information included the suspect’s IP address, in particular. From the IP address Robertson got the latitude and longitude (here is one site that will do that for you) and then used Google Earth to home in on the neighborhood. He couldn’t quite get to the street address that way, but close enough that Canadian authorities did the rest.

So just remember that. In a multiuser game you can think of yourself as living out of time, out of space, and out of your own skin, but you aren’t. Someone knows a great deal about you, and might even be willing to answer a polite request to reveal it.

Which may be what we actually want. Or is it?

Who Put the Viagra In My Google?

Thursday, December 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google Alerts are emailed notices of new items on the Web relevant to your favorite search terms. I have alerts set on my own name and the names of my books, etc. It;s a way to keep up to date on, well, mostly on the careers of the other Harry Lewises — one is a police chief somewhere, one is a football player in some minor pro league, and one is a race horse.

You should set some up too, especially if you don’t get enough email. By setting up multiple alerts, you can keep your inbox quite full of stuff, some of which may even be relevant to your life.

I have the preferences set so I get alerts of blog entries mentioning me, and my own posts on this blog come back to me as alerts. Here is one I got this morning:

We Always Have The Cheapest Offers In Our Online-Drugstore » Blog 
By Harry Lewis
Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 by Harry Lewis. In the New York Times, buy viagra, travelers and privacy experts present their views on whether the millimeter-wave scanners I discussed yesterday are an unacceptable invasion of privacy. 
Blown to Bits –

You will notice that the subject line, about a drug store, is not in the original post; nor is the phrase “buy viagra” which has been inserted into the text. I’ve checked the HTML code of the web page to make sure there isn’t any hidden text that Google picked up; there isn’t. There is no link to a drug store, either on the web page or in the alert. Click on the link in the emailed alert and you go to the blog, not to any drug store site.

Somehow, someone seems to have edited the alert, somewhere between where it was generated and where I received it. Can’t figure out why or how. If anyone has a bright idea, I’d love to hear it!

Search Engine Neutrality?

Monday, December 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Adam Raff, a founder of Foundem, an Internet technology firm, makes the case in today’s New York Times for “Search Engine Neutrality,” which is kind of like network neutrality except that the nondiscrimination policy would apply to the way search engines return their results. As Raff states it, search neutrality means that “search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.” He objects, for example, to Google favoring its own map service over competing map services. And he objects to the way Google down-ranked his company’s product comparison service, which, he says, severely impacted its business.

Many of the points Raff makes are versions of thoughts in Chapter 4 of Blown to Bits, where we discuss the distorting lens phenomenon and an extreme case of search oblivion at the hands of Google’s ranking. (We also make the point, as Raff notes, that some of Google’s keyword auction technology was the invention not of Google but of Overture.)

But can search “impartiality” and “relevance” really be defined statutorily? I doubt it, or rather, I doubt we would want the hash that Congress or a regulatory bureaucracy would make of an attempt to regulate the semantics of the entire English language (and not just English). And lots of things affect Google’s rankings –see the Webmaster Help page, which includes advice such as not creating pages with little or no original content. I don’t think we want a legal entity judging whether pages were downranked for these or other reasons, or whether Google’s Safe Search filter has improperly omitted someone’s web page entirely.

In the presence of competition, none of this would be a worry. People would choose a search engine based on whether they liked the results it delivered, or perhaps on the basis of quality ratings by an organization such as Consumers Report. They could move if the search company changed their policy. The same is true with net neutrality, actually — the demand would not be so compelling if the number of choices of Internet services were not limited to one or two in so many places.

Monopolies are always dangerous, and this op-ed drives home that point. Not sure I am persuaded about the remedy, though.

Note: Any account written by an agent of a company unhappy about where its name turns up in Google searches should be regarded skeptically. There are lots of possible reasons for Google to downrank a site that have nothing to do with Google trying to gain an advantage in a new business sector, and Foundem’s web page design certainly doesn’t dazzle. Would love to know the full facts here, but I don’t.

A Step Forward for Net Neutrality

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (press release) to guarantee that the Internet would remain open, predictable, and transparent, as its architects intended it. The Commission had previously endorsed four Internet principles:

  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of¬†their choice.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of¬†their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices¬†that do not harm the network.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers,¬†application and service providers, and content providers.

These principles get at a lot of what has made the Internet succeed, but fail to address the problems that arise when the carriers enter the content industry. The conflicted interests became most apparent when Comcast began to introduce fraudulent packets to slow down the Internet delivery of movies–raising the suspicion that it might be doing so to encourage its Internet subscribers to buy movies from its pay per view cable service instead. We blogged this several times (here for example). Exactly the same situation arose more than a century ago when Western Union cut an exclusive deal with one “wire service,” which to the profit of both would have ended the delivery over Western Union’s telegraph wires of news from alternative sources. That is what started the government’s interest in regulation of telecommunications.

The FCC decided to adopt a fifth principle:

  • Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access¬†service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory¬†manner.

Of course, that “reasonable” leaves a great deal to the imagination, and that is why this is a policy, not a rule. The rules remain yet to be written, though the Notice gives plenty of information about what to expect.

Because this, like everything, is political, the vote split along party lines, and carried because the FCC is majority Democratic. All five commissioners issued individual statements. The major telecomms, such as Verizon, and stoutly opposed. The Drudge report dramatically screamed, “JULIUS AT FCC WANTS TO ‘REGULATE’ INTERNET,” combining fear-mongering and condescension. Yes, this is an area that needs regulation. You don’t want Verizon to have the legal right to refuse service–either telephone or Internet–to the headquarters of one political party, say, just because it might prefer the policies of the other party.

All the FCC documents are available via the home page,¬† You need to scroll down to the heading “Commission Seeks Public Input on Draft Rules to Preserve the Free and Open Internet.”

As for whether it’s bad for business, I am always astonished that the Republicans so easily forget that the big businesses they so love to protect from regulation were all once small businesses that got started because they saw an opportunity in an open space. Google got started because it could count on how the Internet worked. So did tens of thousands of other businesses, some of which failed, and some of which, like Napster, were closed down as illegal. That’s the way the system should work. The Internet is a fertile place, and in a world where, sadly, most American households have zero, one, or two choices for Internet service, regulation of Internet monopolies and duopolies is needed to help new business ideas can take root.

I also recommend the¬†Berkman Center’s exhaustive study of broadband access around the world, plainly establishing that all the supposed benefits of open and unregulated competition among private entities have left the US, which invented the Internet, a middle of the road country as far as access and speed. The FCC is soliciting comments both¬†on the Net Neutrality proposed rule-making and¬†on the broadband study.