Decision Time for Net Neutrality

If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that the US Federal Communications Commission will be revoking strong rules to protect Net Neutrality on Thursday.

I had the pleasure of discussing this Saturday night at a most appropriate location: Riverwest Radio, a low-power community radio station in Milwaukee. I spoke with Gary Grass and Babette Grunow on “The Grass is Greener.”

Hear the show:

Riverwest Radio reaches its listeners in two ways:

  • If you happen to live within a few miles of the transmitter on the northeast side, you can listen on WXRW, 104.1 on your FM dial.
  • If the signal doesn’t reach you, you can stream the station live on the internet, or listen to archived shows on Soundcloud.

If Ajit Pai’s plan to end net neutrality as we know it is implemented, Riverwest Radio will likely be one of the first casualties of Internet “fast lanes.” To continue to focus on its community, it may not be able to serve folks outside it as they do now. They certainly won’t be able to justify paying service providers extra to get into the fast lane.

So, what’s next?

While it’s difficult to see a positive outcome from Thursday’s FCC meeting, the fight doesn’t stop there. Both the FCC and Congress need to continue to hear from the majority of internet users that we won’t back down.

Start by participating in Fight for the Future’s “Break the Net” online demonstration on Tuesday, December 12th. Visit https://www.battleforthenet.com/ to get the latest information. You’ll be able to stop here (and many, many other sites) on that day to let the reigning powers know what you think.

If you can get to Washington, DC, Popular Resistance is organizing demonstrations and sleepover at the FCC building.

In short, don’t quit. Spread the word. Continue to speak out, and write too.

Defend Net Neutrality! Take your stand while you still can!

Net Neutrality Update: Is John Oliver our only champion?

Net Neutrality: Five Reasons the President Did the Right Thing

Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

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Decentralized Web Pt 4: Progress and Setbacks

At long last, here’s the last of a four-post series introducing the new themes for Notes from the Metaverse. In case you’re just joining us, look these over:
What is a Decentralized Web?
Surveillance and Privacy
Join the IndieWeb

While I was composing those posts, and otherwise living my life, Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman at the Center for Civic Media & Digital Currency Initiative of the MIT Media Lab were preparing and producing a 112-page report on the progress towards — and problems facing — the builders of the decentralized web, called Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future? Click the link to download the PDF of the report.

Read the 6-page Executive Summary to get the gist of the report, but it’s worthwhile to go through it all if you have the time.

Honestly, this study spends more time discussing the dominance of corporate social networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter, than about the open Web. Yet it does offer case studies of some of the important building blocks that lay the groundwork for a return to the Web as a basis for communication and collaboration.

In this summary, I’ll look at those pieces of the report that directly address the Web, as opposed to social networking. You can bet I’ll write about that soon.

The Freedom Box

I’d forgotten about this effort, which was a big deal in Linux circles when it launched in 2013. Initially, this was a desktop computer designed for “personal publishing.” It soon devolved into a router with privacy built in to the firmware. The standard router included a secure digital card (SD card) with custom firmware that enabled additional ad blocking, malware detection and support for things like OpenPGP. This enabled users to leverage the web of trust for authentication of TSL/SSL communications through the use of familiar tools, such as one’s web browser or a secure shell.

The report (p36) describes the central aim of the Freedom Box project:

The Freedom Box project aimed to give greater autonomy and control over user publishing, by shifting from corporate owned hardware to a community ownership model for storing content. They also explicitly sought to enable users to discover and filter one another’s content by supporting projects like Diaspora, which enabled a set of users to exchange information and interact within a federated framework.

The Freedom Box lets you communicate more securely through the web without as many passwords, but more folks usually accept the routers offered them by their Internet Service Provider. Privacy just isn’t enough, for now.

Blockstack and Passwords

We all know that passwords are evil. We have too many of them, and can’t effectively keep track of them. We have a variety of software to generate and store them — until their database gets hacked. All kinds of really smart people are looking for a replacement to them, but the spectre is raised of bad guys hacking off our fingers for the prints!
Meantime, a lot of sites allow us to identify ourselves through our already-established Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts.

One solution the report looks to is Blockstack. They write: “Using Blockstack, an author associates a public key with their username of choice, which can then be used to verify that documents associated with that name were produced by that person.” (p51)

Your name and public key gets stored in a blockchain transaction, which is a tamper-resistant (but not tamper-proof) record of the stuff that gets entered on it. Once you establish your username on Blockstack, it could become your single ID on the Web, not controlled by Google or Facebook.

The report notes that we used to have the OpenID standard for authenticating humans without requiring passwords, which worked quite well for years — until Facebook and the rest decided that they could collect still more information about us (to sell to their advertisers) based on the sites we visit.

This section of the report again denies the ability of ordinary users to break from the existing reality. “The average user doesn’t see the need for secure identity and thus isn’t interested in learning more about independently controlled identity solutions in order to adopt them.” (p53)

This may be true, but that’s where movements like IndieWeb come in. If users are persuaded that secure identity is essential to avoid theft (just think about Equifax), they can see how relatively easy it is to do the right thing.

There’s another long section about how hard it is to manage public key cryptography, but I’ll hold off comment on this for another day. Shall I note that the report cites a public opinion poll from 1999 on how people feel about the usability of crypto keys?

The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) and Distributed Hosting

Of course, everything starts with the really cool name. The concept is similar to the principles behind SETI At Home. Where distributed computing focused on harnessing spare memory and chip cycles to look for coherent signals from the galaxy, IPFS wants you to share hard drive space. In the report’s words (p2): IPFS “is a distributed storage service with a proposed mechanism to incentivize resource sharing creating a new transport protocol to address challenges around preserving links to content online.”

While theoretically, any computer can be on the internet, and if you have web server software installed, you can host and display content in any web browser. Of course, you have to have that machine on 24/7/365 for the content to be read. Your machine’s Internet Protocol (IP) address should also have a domain name attached to it. Oh, and you have to have the expertise to fix anything that goes wrong. This is why most people use a web hosting company to store their content. Also why most people post and share content using the existing social media silos.

Participants in IPFS aim to provide enough space someday to hold all active content on the web, and make it available to everyone.

The report offers a nice description of this (p62):

… anyone can easily copy and serve content, making it harder to take that content down, and potentially improving latency by making files accessible in multiple places. IPFS stands in contrast to the way content is currently discovered online today, using URLs and HTTP links to identify a specific server host, where that content lives.”

IPFS also has the ability to serve as a content archive for the Internet. One goal for the system is to enable users to find content even after a website owner (or government agency) decides to remove it, or migrates to a new location.

As for a downside, the MIT authors worry about freeloaders, where people consume the available data, but don’t contribute any space to the project. I suppose some of that is inevitable, but ideas will move forward to solve it.

Solid: A Protocol for User-Centered Sharing

This is the project that I have the most hope for, not least because Tim Berners-Lee is involved, along with a team from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Instead of proprietary Share buttons owned by the siloed social networks, Solid is a web standard for sharing content with silos. With a little bit of engineer-speak, the project explains its goal (p69):

The goal of Solid is to support a high degree of interoperability between applications, as well as to enable greater portability of data between servers. The Solid team aims to do this by developing a standard API that makes it easy for developers to write applications that allow users to use the same data in different applications instead of leaving it locked inside different application data repositories.

Translation: Let social networking software work together better, and allow folks to copy and move data that they create, or comment on, or otherwise manipulate, from one site to another reasonably easily. So you can share interesting stuff you find on Facebook with your own site, other people who share your interests on their sites, and anywhere else on the web. Your stuff should be yours, not be siloed in just one place because that one place needs exclusivity.

It uses an already existing web standard called Resource Description Framework (RDF).
What’s the downside? According to the report, it will be hard for developers to switch. The authors claim that RDF is a “deeply ideological protocol,” by which I think they mean it is deeply committed to an open, and semantic Web. What’s so wrong about that?

The report authors conclude (p74):

The approach of Solid towards promoting interoperability and platform-switching is admirable, but it begs the question: why would the incumbent “winners” of our current system, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, ever opt to switch to this model of interacting with their users? Doing so threatens the business model of these companies, which rely on uniquely collecting and monetizing user data.

Well, that’s the problem now, isn’t it? People might object to business models that “rely on uniquely collecting and monetizing user data.” Without an alternative in place, they may also feel stuck where they are.

An Appcoin-Based Web Economy?

The fundamental question for any linked electronic system is how both content and computers get paid for. Blockchain-based currencies seem to be the best option today. The report authors look at “Appcoins” like Steem as a “digital currency framework that enables users to financially participate in ownership of platforms and protocols.” In addition, they see four main ways that Appcoins might support collectively owned and managed digital networks (p78):

  • by creating a new funding model for open source software
  • by helping bootstrap new fledgling networks
  • by enabling greater competition
  • as a tool for collective governance

They go on to look at Steem as a case study, and suggest that so far, this hasn’t worked.

I do not claim expertise in the area of financial instruments and crypto-currencies. That said, I’m skeptical of those who believe Bitcoin and its progeny represent a solution to the evils of the current banking system. At the same time, I like many of the ideas put forward by the “platform cooperativists,” who are, in turn, big on a decentralized web backed by crypto-coins. More investigation required, I guess.

Summary and Final Thoughts

Overall, this is a pessimistic report, largely because the authors have a tough time seeing anything changing, particularly when it comes to the state of social networks. These blinders are most apparent in passages like these, talking about decentralized social networks (p43):

Large companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon pay less per unit of compute power and storage space because they purchase and manage it in bulk. A smaller company purchasing less of each resource would not be able to negotiate the same low prices. Moreover, the most successful model for monetization of social publishing platforms is advertising. Existing mega-platforms have huge troves of data on user behavior. New platforms start out at a competitive disadvantage to existing networks that already control the advertising space.

The status quo remains stable until it doesn’t. Species don’t evolve, until they do. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould gave this process a lovely name: “punctuated equilibrium.” Change happens, often when you least expect it. Notes from the Metaverse hopes to both chronicle that change, and help to nudge it forward. Join us!

I am deeply interested in what you think of the ideas posed in this series of posts. What would it take for you to become part of the IndieWeb? Does the upside of the status quo overwhelm its downsides? What would force you to break completely from corporate social networks? Are the authors right? Is this all a pipe dream? Comment below or use Webmention to comment on your own site.

openSUSE Board Chair: Nearly Pulled Plug on Distro in 2015

openSUSE logo

©2017 Michael McCallister

Richard Brown, chair of the openSUSE Linux Community Board, reported to the openSUSE Support list this week that after the release of v13.2 in 2014 he “was faced with the very real and depressing problem of having to find a way of informing the community that there would be no more releases of the openSUSE Distribution.”

Brown wrote that “the Project was struggling to find volunteers to actually help produce the distribution” dating back to the 12.2 release in the summer of 2012.

Background: Strategy and Audience

At around this same time (2010-11), the project leadership engaged the entire openSUSE community in a strategic planning exercise, covered here and here. The strategy was summarized in this paragraph:

The openSUSE project is a worldwide effort that promotes the use of Linux everywhere. The openSUSE community develops and maintains a packaging and distribution infrastructure which provides the foundation for the world’s most flexible and powerful Linux distribution. Our community works together in an open, transparent and friendly manner as part of the global Free and Open Source Software community.

It further defined the distribution’s target audience as “users who are interested in computers and want to get work done, experiment or learn. We offer a stable and enjoyable computing experience which does not limit freedom of choice; offering sane defaults and easy configuration.”

In an email exchange, Brown said that this discussion led to “conclusions end(ing) up being so generic they are not actionable.”

“In a vibrant community (which openSUSE is), open ended questions will lead to hundreds of responses, positive and negative, and forming consensus or conclusions from such noise is next to impossible.”

Brown’s account indicates that, even after the strategy and target audience was decided, the project continued to pursue a “Linux for everyone” audience. He wrote that while the distro had a “steady, loyal, and growing userbase,” new downloads (that is, new users) declined with every release.

Leaping Over the Crisis

openSUSE Leap logoWhat solved the distribution’s existential crisis was flipping the development cycle, using the commercial SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) code base as the basis for the stable periodic Leap distribution, and the Tumbleweed rolling release builds on each Leap release.

“Instead of openSUSE no longer having a stable distribution due to lack of contributor interest,” Brown wrote, “Leap has found new contributors in addition to the ones we effectively ‘stole’ by milking SUSE’s SLE efforts for everything they were worth. … And as a result Leap has been a bigger success than I had ever hoped for. ”

Note: Brown told me that the Tumbleweed rolling release would have continued, regardless of whether the “stable” release disappeared.

Today’s opensuse.org landing page just says openSUSE is:

The makers’ choice for sysadmins, developers and desktop users.

Brown later indicated a new document outlining the “Makers’ choice” strategy is in the works, and will be presented to the community “once we think we have a solid starting point for such discussions.”

A Few Thoughts

As a Member of the openSUSE Community,  I’m convinced the board and development team deserves kudos for rescuing this terrific distribution from its decline. As Brown told me, “We can’t appeal to (new users) when we advertise ourselves as ‘Linux for everybody’ – if we target everybody everywhere, we effectively target
nobody, nowhere.”

If you haven’t yet tried it, no matter what kind of computer user you are, come join our now-thriving community. I’ll be glad to help you.

 

©2017 Michael McCallister (contact)

Decentralized Web Pt 3: Join the IndieWeb

Back in May, when I relaunched Notes from the Metaverse, I told you that this blog would now focus on three important areas related to the Open Web:

  • Software tools that empower
  • Defending net neutrality and universal access to the Internet
  • For an open, decentralized web

I wanted to explain the concept of a decentralized web in a little more depth, and started out strong with a pair of posts. Between the normal summer activities, and a few other intervening projects, I’ve been slow in producing the remaining explainers. I’m fixing that now.


If you need a refresher, here are the first two posts:



The IndieWeb: Your Place for Your Content

indiewebcampIn recent months, I’ve been learning a lot about the “IndieWeb,” an idea spread by folks who understand that the Web offers a unique platform where ordinary people without the financial clout of the 20th century publishing industry could still potentially reach millions with their ideas.

Starting with early sites like GeoCities, Tripod and AngelFire, anyone could create a “home page” on the web, and pontificate on whatever came to mind. When these services went bust in the dot-bomb era at the turn of the century, “Web 2.0” fostered the creation of personal blogs and the systems (like WordPress) that managed them.

Today, far too many of us who want to use the internet to communicate with friends, family and total strangers do so in “walled gardens” like Facebook. Services that treat its users as products to sell to advertisers. As I’ve mentioned before, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

IndieWeb is all about you controlling your content, connecting with people you want to connect with, with nobody using your stuff to get others to sell you things you may not want.

Why You Should Be Part of the IndieWeb

I’ve been saying and writing this for years: You need to own your ideas, and how you express them. Especially true for writers, but really true for everyone who wants to communicate on the internet. This idea is at the core of IndieWeb organization.Protecting privacy and anonymity online

But to be honest, I’m not sure I can tell you why — and how — to join up any better than Chris Aldrich did in this piece on AltPlatform. So just go over there now.

What Does the IndieWeb Have to do with a Decentralized Web?

The IndieWeb is a bridge to the decentralized web we really need. Think of it as a way to get used to the idea that the Web should belong to you. Over time, perhaps you’ll break with being dependent on corporations to communicate. You’ll still be able to connect with all these other services and the people on them, but still have access to everything you contribute. Even if that service goes bust, or makes insufficient profits for its parent company, your stuff remains in your hands (or at least your hard drive).

The decentralized web needs different software, and different ways to connect up. It may take time, but the more people who stake out a homestead on the IndieWeb, the closer we’ll get to the real deal.

Coming soon: An Update on the Decentralized Web

A few weeks ago, the MIT Media Lab released a report on the state of the Decentralized Web, one year after the original Decentralized Web Summit. I’m reading this report now, and will comment on it in the next post.

Also coming soon, my redesigned, IndieWeb-ified website at MichaelMcCallister.com.

Are you on the IndieWeb yet? What problems do you anticipate if you decide to go indie? Is the IndieWeb (or the blogosphere) actually better than Facebook for virtual communities? Comments always appreciated.

 

Net Neutrality Comment Deadline This Week!

Hey folks, the deadline is looming for submitting comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about their plan to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs), also known as your cable or telephone company, to leverage their pipes by implementing fast lanes for the highest bidders and other attacks on free speech on the Internet.

Submit comments by Wednesday, August 30 to share your thoughts on letting the “free market” decide what information you have access to on the Web, and what megacorp it will come from.

Recognizing that FCC Chair Ajit Pai has a 3-2 majority means that the struggle with the FCC is an uphill one. Whatever the FCC decides on this issue, the final resolution to this battle for the net may well be delivered by Congress. The best defense of net neutrality would be to make it law. Otherwise, every time the White House changes hands, the rules will change.

For this reason, Fight For the Future and other advocates for net neutrality are organizing meetings with Congressfolk while the summer recess continues. Find more information at the Battle for the Net site. You can also submit a comment to the FCC (with a copy to your representatives in Congress) at that link.

In the event you need to be persuaded why net neutrality is important, and why the current rules (not Pai’s alternative) represent real net neutrality, look these over:

Defend Net Neutrality! Take your stand while you still can!

Net Neutrality Update: Is John Oliver our only champion?

And a couple of blasts from the last fight:

Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

Happy Net Neutrality Day!

Whatever you think, do take action!