In it, he explains in his usual clear, easy-to-understand way how power is distributed in the web, and how this distribution has changed over the years. More concretely, how have distributed actors gained and wielded as opposed to centralized, institutional actors – and then goes on to think about how we can find a balance between both types of power to make sure the internet keeps being a force for positive social change in the world.
Please do take the 12 or so minutes, it’ll change the way you see the web and where it’s headed.
Over on the Mozilla Webmaker site, James Bridle wrote a brilliant piece that explains in very simple terms how to get a better understanding of the web at the most basic level – where the cables and buildings are located, and where our data travels: How to see through the cloud. It’s fantastic!
And since the whole point of the Webmaker project is to allow for quick and easy remixing – and the learning process associated with it – I took the liberty to translate it to German.
We talk about the cloud all the time, the seemingly ephemeral, almost magical place where our data lives and thrives. But only when the system fails and something doesn’t work do we notice that there’s a brick-and-mortar infrastructure that everything runs on. Cables, servers, concrete buildings. Heck, even my mom asked me about the cloud a few weeks ago, and what it looks like.
Well, thanks to James everyone can now just poke around the web and get a better understanding on where the cloud really lives, and how our data travels down the cables hopping from data center to data center.
As a side note, if you want to learn in a playful, really not threatening way about how the web works, please go check out Mozilla Webmaker. It’s a fantastic resource and very, very simple to get into.
“Failure to sign agreement at ITU conference stops governments having greater powers to control phone calls and data”, is the Guardian’s headline, announcing that the ITU summit failed to move more control over the internet to a global government body that would have bypassed a lot of the multi-stakeholder input and checks we currently have. The efforts to claim control were headed by Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates, all states with comparatively tight control over the internet, each in their own way.
Just some impressions as described in the Guardian article:
“The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.”
— Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation
[Head of consulting firm dot-nxt] McCarthy, who has published ITU planning documents that would otherwise have been kept out of sight on dot-nxt’s website, criticised the conduct of the meeting: “attendees were stunned to find a conference style and approach stuck in the 1970s,” he said. “(…) meetings ran until the early hours of the morning, and “consensus by exhaustion” was the only fall-back position.”
It was a close thing. But there we go. Phew. Thanks to all the initiatives that sprung up in public as well as in the backchannels to drag this thing into light, and make sure it didn’t go through as initially planned.
What seems like it started out as a joke by David Eaves turned into one of the most interesting (and hilarious) discussions I participated in at Foo Camp. I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing, instead I’ll write down a few key points and thoughts.
The premise for the session was this: As we see looking at political struggles like the Arab Spring or the protest against SOPA/PIPA and related bills, and increasing online censorship both in authoritarian regimes and across the Western World, there is clearly a power struggle going on with the governments on one side and the Internet on the other.
(Yes, yes, we never defined who and what exactly is “the Internet”; for the purpose of the discussion and the blog post, we’ll have to make do, and I’ll capitalize it unless I mean the technical infrastructure that makes up the physical internet.)
So let’s assume there are two major power blocks, in any given country: On one hand, the government, in most cases with an inherent interest to preserve the status quo, which is permanently endangered by the internet’s capacity to empower activists, citizens and all other groups alike. On the other hand, the online community, including civil society and the individuals, political activists, consumers etc etc. The latter is extremely vague of course, but there you go, but let’s assume the Internet strives to be as free as possible, with access to as much information as possible and as little restrictions as possible.
We know that in many cases, the Internet has won that particular battle, or at least helped win it. The Arab Spring or SOPA/PIPA are just two examples. In other cases, not so much: Iran, China, the more subtle types of filtering going on in Western democracies like Germany.
So that’s where we stand, but (1) what does it mean, and are we even asking the right questions? (2) And is there really a battle of state v Internet?
(1) We don’t know yet, and (2) probably not. Instead, let’s look at some of the aspects we need to dig into much, much deeper to really find answers. I’ll just collect them here, as I also don’t really have answers, and neither did the group. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who could make anything better than an informed guess.
What are the possible outcomes if those are the lines of conflict? No state, strong Internet? No free Internet, but a strong state? Neither are likely. Should a state truly collapse, it would most likely mean a breakdown of infrastructure and services, and thereby also mean the end of the internet in that region. On the other hand, hardly any state can afford to really shut down the internet anymore, as basically all of the essential services a state provides are at least affected, if not based on the internet. More likely is a new balance, one that might be shifting back and forth, some slightly more regulated internet than today or 5 years ago, but still with plenty of wriggle room.
Did we even identify all the major parties in this constellation? Probably not. As some folks pointed out, corporations might be one of the major forces at work. Companies that try to influence both government and Internet in order to preserve the freedom they strive for to do their business, and potentially keeping each other in check. Maybe a more distinct civil society could also be a party of sorts.
Which role do the inter-dependencies between traditional military action and cyberwar play? Will a country get into a military conflict over a cyber attack? What about pre-emptive cyber attacks? What about semi or fully autonomous, networked drones? What about retaliating with a full-blown country-wide DDOS-style attack as a reaction to guerilla cyber warfare? And should there be a NATO equivalent for the civilian Internet, pooling resources to protect the free web?
Which role will a nationstate play in a time where networked knowledge workers work, play and live globally, constantly on the move? It probably won’t provide much identity, it won’t provice basic services as long as the person doesn’t happen to be on that nationstate’s soil. That leaves the state as a passport provider and somewhat of a permanent mailbox.
Are we headed for a new kind of citizenship that isn’t primarily based on the traditional nationstate? And what would that be based on? Is the uniting factor a corporation/employer, a tribe (West Coast, East Coast, Euro geeks, etc), something more local or regional (city states), or based on your access to information and network (ISP, data haven, or similar)? Stephenson, Doctorow & Co have drawn up a number of scenarios, all of which might be plausible.
Will governments around the world try to either crack down on the Internet, or become much, much more responsive to citizens?
One thing is for sure: There’s a good chance that the role of the nationstate will change dramatically over the next 5-15 years. How? Hard to tell. But it’s not likely to stay the way it is.
In a fairly ridiculous comment on Handelsblatt.com, CDU (conservative) member of parliament Ansgar Heveling attacked not just the internet, but a whole system of thought. The networked society, if you will. The article is pure link bait, or a display of incredibly obvious lack of understanding, and a pretty cheap political stunt. It pretty much deserves to be ignored. I’m going to fall for it, if only for one reason: It directly contradicts a fantastic book I’m just reading, and so I can’t just let it hang there.
Here’s what Mr Heveling writes in his wisdomknowledgeignorant opinion piece:
Doch Googles und Wikimedias dieser Welt, lasst euch zurufen: Auch wenn Wikipedia für einen Tag ausgeschaltet ist und Google Zensurbalken trägt, ist das nicht das Ende des Wissens der Menschheit. Welche Hybris! Lasst euch gesagt sein: Das Wissen und vor allem die Weisheit der Welt liegen immer noch in den Köpfen der Menschen
However, Googles and Wikimedias of the world, let me shout out to you: Even if Wikipedia is switched off for a day and Google shows a censorship bar, this isn’t The End of Mankind’s Knowledge. The hubris! Let me tell you: The knowledge and particularly the wisdom of the world is still inside the heads of humans.
Well, Mr Heveling, funny you’d say that. Allow me to just quote David Weinberger back at you, who understands more of this topic than you and I, and – very much unlike you – has facts to back this up:
We have a new form of knowing. This new knowledge requires not just giant computers but a network to connect them, to feed them, and to make their work accessible. It exists at the network level, not in the heads of individual human beings.
You can read up on how knowledge works now and in the future in Mr Weinberger’s new book. And you should. I’ll even include a link to the German Amazon store just for you.
In this recent TED talk, Clay Shirky makes a spot on, scary, fantastic argument why SOPA, PIPA and their brethren bills are so terribly damaging. Plus, he puts the bills into their historical context – I for one really hadn’t noticed how directly they align with former content industry initiatives like the DMCA and others. There’s a strong vector at work here, and it’s a hurtful one.
On the other hand, what we’re seeing here is a coming-of-age moment for the “other side” – the internet community at large, the free culture & open source communities, the technology companies.
With a Web-wide protest on Wednesday that includes a 24-hour shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia, the legislative battle over two Internet piracy bills has reached an extraordinary moment — a political coming of age for a relatively young and disorganized industry that has largely steered clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington.
There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty. The old conflict between publicly funded and private media, and the fight about who regulates the whole sphere. Of course all of it was triggered by the internet. How could the net just allow information to be spread so easily and at such a low cost!
But jokes aside, there’s some seriously disturbing stuff going on right now. Namely, two focal points in this conflict about who should make media and under what conditions, and how should media be consumed.
Focal point #1: Google vs FTC
The FTC published a paper as basis for further discussion (“Staff Discussion Draft”, PDF) to evaluate the situation of news media today and to draft policy proposals. One of them: additional intellectual property rights to support news media against “free riding by news aggregators”. This by itself is one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a while. News aggregators (read: Google News), of course, channel traffic to the media sites. There’s no cannibalization going on, it’s the other way round. It’s good to see – and just fair to point out – that the draft also states that “expanded IP rights could restrict citizens’ access to this news, inhibit public discourse, and impinge upon free speech rights.” Yes, that it might well do.
If you prefer the summary, jump straight to Jeff Jarvis, who sides clearly with Google as well as I do: This is not really a legal battle, but one over business models. And protecting an old, broken system should not be in the FTC’s (or anyone’s) interest.
Focal point #2: German public broadcasters are “depublishing”
A similar problem is discussed in Germany these days, if maybe in slightly different environment. In Germany we’ve had strong (and well-funded, particularly compared to the US) public broadcasters. (Note: not newspapers.) These broadcasters have done a tremendous job in the past, and even though there has been a lot of criticism over budgets and spending and about certain areas of engagement, they have a fairly strong support on a societal level. They have a clear mandate to provide basic information in all areas (including entertainment), and at least kind-of-clear limits of their engagement (no dating sites etc). These limits are based mainly on protecting private companies from publicly funded competition.
And it’s this eternal conflict of interests (here: “the public” vs “private publishing corporations”) that’s at the core of the dilemma. Public broadcasters in Germany were always very limited on what they could do online. But now, content has to be “depublished”* after some time. (Depending on the kind of content, which is evaluated by a three step system of the more absurd kind of type, after a week, a year or some other time span.) The content won’t be deleted, but hidden.
How much protection do private publishers need from the government?
Now this raises all kinds of interesting questions. (The biggest of which is of course: WTF? But let’s save that for another time.) Questions I cannot necessarily answer off the top of my head. Like: Should private broadcasters really be protected from public broadcasters? How much so? Are there certain fields where this protection should be stronger than others? (Sports? Mobile services?) But also: How can content that we paid for by our (publicly collected and handled) fees be locked away after we paid for it, and how can even more of our money be spent on locking it away? What happens to all the references in Wikipedia that linked to said public content? How can a generation of tax and fee payers be expected to pay for fees if the content won’t be available through the channels they use?
I cannot even remember the last time I watched TV at home, on a TV set, live, on the air. And I certainly won’t start now.
So we need to ask ourselves: How much protection do we want to give to publishers and broadcasters, and what price are we willing to pay?
There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty.
The word makes me want to invoke Godwin’s Law. But I’ll hold back, I promise.