Mitchell Baker: Technology is Not Enough!

The panel discussion among Internet pioneers started innocently enough, with Vint Cerf and David Farber reminiscing about the early days of the Internet and the other titans of personal computing. Engrossing stuff, even if I knew most of it before.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Internet Society hosted a panel last week called “The Internet Age: Founders to Future” last week. The panel featured Cerf, Farber, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, and Sebastian Thrum of Udacity.

Resolving the Digital Divide

When the discussion turned to the future, though, things got a little testy. Farber and Cerf were talking about how about the global digital divide is being bridged by the increasing use of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. This is a common meme among Internet optimists.

Česky: Mitchell Baker na OSCON 2005. Deutsch: ...
Mitchell Baker at OSCON 2005, with the same kind of look she had at the Smithsonian last week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you watch the recording (below, at about 57 minutes), you’ll notice Baker start to fidget in her chair when this came up. If this were a grade school classroom, she’d probably start raising her hand in the air for recognition. Something is missing in this narrative.

“I don’t think technology’s enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s so comfortable to say ‘We have mobile phones, so the digital divide is just going away on its own. The bottom of the pyramid, the two billion people who are starving  will magically be able to get phones and access and a data plan – everything is going to open up.’”

Mitchell argued that progress in technology has a “positive direction,” but tech alone will not resolve every human problem. “It will continue to be an act of will of nation-states and individuals to assist in (fixing) not just the digital divide but the starvation divide. Just having a cheap phone is not going to fix that!”

Cerf said that Mitchell had a legitimate point, but noted that poor people have used smartphones as a way of transferring value. Making electronic payments through phones allow people to avoid some of the corruption involved with cash payments. “Don’t blame starvation on the Internet.”

Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist w...
Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist who is commonly referred to as one of the “founding fathers of the Internet” for his key technical and managerial role, together with Bob Kahn, in the creation of the Internet and the TCP/IP protocols which it uses. Taken at a conference in Bangalore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mitchell said that “Human beings still have to care and make some effort with our policies and our wealth distribution and social stigmas in order to address the divides.“ A rising tide may lift all boats, but you may still have “haves and have-nots.”

Tech as tool for democracy

Farber said the Internet can function as an important tool for making change. “Without technology, the little people are separated. … We provide the vehicle for people to get together.” Thrum had raised a similar point earlier, citing the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring as the prime example of the Net as a democratic tool.

Let me interject here: Egypt represents another common analogy when talking about the connection between the Internet and activism, but fails to note a key fact. While Hosni Mubarak is not president of Egypt anymore, the military was really the power in Egypt at the beginning of the decade, and has returned to power now. Far too many of the youthful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are either quiet, in jail, or in exile.

Women on Tech Panels For the Win?

Now I don’t want to suggest that Cerf (who helped create TCP/IP), Farber (an originator of academic use of the Net) or Thrum are the bad guys here, but this discussion doesn’t happen without Mitchell Baker. She may not have the “founder of the Internet” credentials of the others, but she may have a better sense of the real social value of the Internet and associated technologies.

It’s easy to view the mass adoption of the Internet and the changes that personal computing have made with a sense of triumphalism. It’s truly been amazing! Just the same, Mitchell had it right — technology by itself just doesn’t cut it. People have to be empowered for the world to change. As I’ve said before, Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Bringing a different set of (non-engineering) life experiences, and being involved in one of the bigger open source projects, Baker forced the founders to think about the role of human beings in building democracy. Putting the whole Internet (not just the sites Mark Zuckerberg approves of) on cheap cell phones is important, but the Internet is just a tool for people to expand and exercise their power.

Happy Net Neutrality Day!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

It’s an important day in the history of the Internet. Despite enormous pressure from the Big Media corporations, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bowed to the democratic pressure of millions of Internet users. These users demanded strong protections against “slow lanes” for their network connections, and to preserve equal protection for all content traveling across the public Internet.

I’ve written about this before, most recently just after President Barack Obama came out for “the strongest possible protection for net neutrality.” If you’re confused by this whole thing, I hope that piece will help clarify things for you.

Net Neutrality: 3 corporations vs every other personSpeaking of confusing, some of the arguments made today against the plan were … interesting. For months, Republican legislators have been denouncing a plan to change the way Internet domain names are allocated around the world as “Obama’s plan to give away the Internet.” Did you notice how today, some opponents of strong net neutrality rules called this “Obama’s secret plan to control the Internet.”

A Couple of Thoughts on the Meeting

It’s worth spending some time watching the FCC meeting video. The FCC’s two opponents of strong net neutrality spent much of their debate time defending assorted companies that would be hurt by these rules. They also suggested that the public had not been heard on the matter. It was almost a breathtaking attempt to pretend that the 4 million responses to the original (far less neutral) rule presented last May didn’t exist.

That said, I agree with two things Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly said. There should have been more public hearings where ordinary people could speak to the commissioners directly. Like other advocates for net neutrality, I’m pretty confident we would have won that battle too.

I also don’t exactly see why Commission chair Tom Wheeler couldn’t have released the new proposal a few days ago. It’s a new era; people expect transparency. And there’s no doubt few minds would have changed in the process.

Time to Celebrate

I loved this tweet from Anil Dash:

One year ago, every person I know who understands the FCC or internet policy considered net neutrality dead. But the people were heard.

It’s the truth. A salute to the organizations that even opponents conceded had led the fight:

Folks I’m probably forgetting too.

Ain’t Over Yet, Though

Corporations just don’t lie down when they’ve been defeated. We still have the best Congress money can buy. Courts too. As the founders used to say, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” So connect with the groups above, and we’ll win more victories!

Digital Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Been reading a lot lately on one of my favorite topics: How to realize the democratic promise of the Internet.

You have to do more than vote periodically to call yourself a citizen. Especially true when it comes to the Internet, where no one really votes to decide on the critical issues.

That’s why the impending US Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality is so important — because we all had a role in moving the bureaucrats toward the right answer.

That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.

Consent of the Networked

Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)

MacKinnon proves her commitment to this principle (of action) by maintaining the book’s website, years after its publication. She blogs actively there, but more importantly she maintains a directory of digital democracy activist organizations on the Get Involved! tab of the site. I know it’s real and current because some of the listed organizations weren’t born yet when the paperback came out.

Building a Bottom-Up Internet Movement

Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:

It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.

For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?

It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.

and there’s a new coalition of civil society organizations:

The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.

It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.

And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.

I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.

Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!

Telecom companies step up pressure on FCC members

The president has declared himself for the “strongest possible form” of net neutrality rules, drawing rule making authority on Title II of the Communications Act. In response, the telecom companies have stepped up the pressure to keep their ability to create “fast lanes” for well-heeled content providers.

net neutrality world logo
net neutrality world logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Federal Communications Commission is a bipartisan affair. Two Republicans, two Democrats, and the chair who usually represents the president’s party (but for the last several years has also represented the communications industry in one fashion or another). In today’s Washington, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the current Republican members think Chairman Tom Wheeler’s first fast-lane proposal didn’t go far enough in removing restrictions on whatever the telecom companies want to do.

Until very recently, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has been the most forthright about defending the strongest possible form of net neutrality. Very recently, however, she offered a less explicit defense of net neutrality during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session:

I support a free and open Internet because I want to preserve the openness and innovation that has occurred. I am focused on the consumer and the consumer experience. I want to know what attributes are necessary to keep the Internet free and open. I want to know whether the rules the FCC adopted in 2010, which banned blocking and unreasonable discrimination were the right approach.

Interestingly enough, the Washington Post reported on November 18 that Rev. Jesse Jackson and other traditional civil rights leaders visited the FCC to lobby against Title II regulation. The Post story cites a statement from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council that buys into the telecom company arguments that “Section 706 regulation would achieve all of the goals of Title II reclassification, but would do so in a way that avoids the uncertainty of forbearance proceedings and without creating disincentives to infrastructure investment. Less investment would translate into less deployment, fewer jobs for our communities, and fewer service options to boost broadband adoption and close the digital divide.”

What the MMTC statement and Clyburn’s AMA comments don’t discuss is that Verizon won its lawsuit against the FCC’s 2010 rules precisely because they relied on Section 706 of the Communications Act, and not Title II. They suggest that telecom companies will stop investing in infrastructure if net neutrality is enforced, yet these companies haven’t exactly been bowling the country over with investment in low-cost, high-speed access.

It’s a shame that advocates for the poor are apparently bowing to the deep pockets that write off contributions to nonprofit organizations, but are not interested in investing in the infrastructure that meet people’s needs. Commissioner Clyburn should get back on the road to real net neutrality.

As always, I apologize for the wonkiness of my net neutrality posts. Check out Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers for a broader description of these issues.

Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

Net Neutrality supporters at FCC Meeting, May 15, 2014

Wednesday, September 10 is Internet Slowdown Day, when this site and a whole bunch of others gave you a taste of what the World Wide Web might look like if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves new rules governing how you can participate and contribute to the Internet for public discussion. These rules, commonly referred to as “net neutrality,” require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like phone and cable companies to treat every bit that travels through their networks to be treated equally.

Need some basic understanding of what’s at stake here? Have some links:

Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know Now, at Free Press

A pair of pieces from Mashable

What I want to focus on is why this is important to writers and other content creators.

Let me start with this lovely tweet from @EdPlocher:

The Internet allows for an unmediated relationship between creators and audiences. Ending ends that.

Let me also offer some other reasons why net neutrality matters:

Writers need web space they can control

One of the central themes Carole Jelen and I stress in Build Your Author Platform: The New Rules is now important it is for writers to have your own website, what we call “home central.” It’s the place where all your social activities point to.

If the fast-lane is implemented, how long does $100/yr web hosting for small businesses and lone creatives last? How long do the new free blogging tools like Medium and the like exist as free? ,  Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter are wonderful places to visit, but I  don’t want to live in any of them. Corporate sites just don’t do enough for us to communicate with readers.

Too many websites don’t pay their “content creators” already.

If the telephone and cable companies get to be first in line to demand money from websites that offer content, guess who moves further down the queue? Too many writers get ripped off already by content mills like Demand Studios, and sites that offer “exposure” instead of cash. As much as I’d like to throttle  the content mills’ bandwidth, that is not how this would work in practice. If anything, the mills would pay the toll and suggest to writers they were the only game in town!

More media consolidation

The central premise of fast lanes and a non-neutral net is easy to understand: Big corporations can pay to play, not so much you and I. What might be easily missed: there isn’t enough competition in the media industry now! In the future, good ideas and good web design won’t be enough for smaller publishers to compete on the web.

Harder for self-publishers/indie authors

More than a few people think self-publishing is the future for writers. Net neutrality is really key for that argument to hold. My guess: Amazon gets even bigger, and writers (eventually) lose!

What to do?

A Kid’s First Memory: JFK’s Funeral

If you’re in the United States (or elsewhere in the English-speaking world), you’ve probably heard by now: 50 years ago today, they buried John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC.

Now many people a bit older than me can tell you where they were when they first learned of the president being shot, or dying from his wounds. I can’t really do that; I was five years old, in the first weeks of (I think) afternoon kindergarten at 35th Street School on the north side of Milwaukee. Since so many recall being let out of school early that day, I’m inclined to think I was too, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the first things that I have a conscious memory of happened today. It’s a little funny, but may also tell you a lot about me, and how I became a news junkie pretty early on. Here’s how I remember it:

The initial CBS news bulletin of the shooting ...
The first CBS news bulletin of the shooting interrupting a live network program, As the World Turns, at 1:40 p.m. (EST) on November 22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My mom and I were living with her parents at that time. I always watched a lot of television as a kid, and that weekend, there was literally nothing else on but coverage of the assassination and its aftermath. It was the birth of live TV news, for better or worse. As part of the anniversary coverage, CBS News streamed its round-the-clock coverage (and ABC News ran its coverage on Friday) in real-time this weekend; the CBS stream is still running as I type this, but may be broken by the time you read this.

English: Publicity photo of Rosemary Prinz as ...
English: Publicity photo of Rosemary Prinz as Penny Hughes from As the World Turns. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Monday, my grandfather was a little tired of it all. A retired letter carrier, strong union man and Democrat, he still was a little cranky at times. Definitely a creature of habit. And so it was that my grampa turned on the TV Monday afternoon as he always did. Instead of seeing his favorite daytime soap opera, As the World Turns, he saw the late president’s state funeral and started sputtering. Don’t remember his words, but he was not happy. My rather emotional response, however, I remember clear as a bell. “But Grampa, the president is dead!” I may not have been entirely clear on what that meant, but I sure got why people cared. We kept the TV on that day.

We can always debate what news is, but sometimes there’s no question about what ought to be on the air. I guess this incident suggests I always had a pretty good news sense.

English: The eternal Flame at President John F...
English: The eternal Flame at President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Truly the Day of the Doctor

LEGO Doctor Who (Collection)
LEGO Doctor Who (Collection) (Photo credit: ChocolateFrogs)

As a writer, I’m not crazy about two consecutive blog posts on the same topic, but on a day where the temperature didn’t get much above 20 degrees F (with chill factors never climbing out of single digits on either side of zero), there’s not much to write about!

After posting “Almost the Day of The Doctor” late last night, I watched more of the Season 7 marathon through 3AM. Got up six hours later, and watched another 2.5 hours of Season 7, though I spent a good chunk of that time futilely with today’s Google Doodle featuring, of course, oh… eleven animated Doctors. Ventured out with my wife for a lovely grilled pastrami-and-swiss sandwich with homemade potato chips at a newly opened deli in our neighborhood.

Came home to get ready for the anniversary show, warmed up the social media engine (do y’all know GetGlue?), watched this season’s finale, The Name of The Doctor, followed by the online Pre-pre-show. I was also going to join a Google Hangout, but my wife insisted I step away from the laptop. Honestly, that was probably the right choice. The film itself was spectacular.

No spoilers here

If you aren’t familiar with Doctor Who at all, you don’t want to start with this episode. There just isn’t enough exposition for the new fan to get this story. Instead, watch the shows I referenced in the last post, Doctor Who Explained and An Adventure in Space and Time.

The Three Doctors (Doctor Who)
The Three Doctors (Doctor Who) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For fans who haven’t seen the show, or are waiting for the 3D theater presentation, I won’t go deeply into the plot. What I can comfortably say is that the story focuses on The Doctor’s role in ending the Time War. You’ll see John Hurt, David Tennant, and Matt Smith as different incarnations of The Doctor, a big cameo from another old-school Doctor, two recent companions, and UNIT. There is a monster species (who have not appeared in the modern version to my recollection), and several appearances by Elizabeth I (no, not the current queen). It was amazing!

OK, one clue: the plot revolves around a painting with two titles: No More and Gallifrey Falls.

Based on this blockbuster, the Christmas special, when Matt Smith gives way to Peter Capaldi, and next season should be spectacular! I can’t wait!


Another Sunday Grab Bag

It’s been a slightly weird weekend, and I don’t have anything specific to talk about. So here are some random thoughts and descriptions.

Storifying the openSUSE Summit

The openSUSE Project logo
The openSUSE Project logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was fun! I curated every Twitter post and G+ reference to “openSUSE” all weekend, and made a story of it here. Sadly, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with tweets to choose from. Perhaps the wi-fi wasn’t that good. I hope next year, they can stream it!

Indirectly, the summit also put me into Twitter a lot more this weekend than in the recent past. Upside: There’s always so much to assimilate, and fun to have.

Monday is the release date for openSUSE 13.1. Watch for the announcement here, and then go get it.

New shoes and jeans

My wife took me shopping yesterday. I think she had more fun. My work shoes have pretty much worn out, so I got a new pair, plus a belt and four pairs of jeans (buy one, get one half-off) at Kohl’s. It had to be done, but it took too long.

Making Real Progress on the book

It’s still not quite ready, because I keep adding things that readers need to know, but my to-do list tells me I’m around 90% done with Chapter 9. Perhaps I’ll finish the app developer chapter in time for the Ubuntu Developers Summit this week!

April in November: Weather in the Midwest

Yes it rained pretty much all weekend here in Milwaukee. Thankfully, we avoided the worst of it (kind thoughts to folks in Illinois and elsewhere with tornadoes and such), but I missed getting to walk outside!

Quite a team that Omidyar and Greenwald are assembling

Jay Rosen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cast of media reformers that are banding together to create a new media gained another Big Name today: Jay Rosen of New York University and the PressThink blog. I haven’t read this thing through yet, but everything I hear builds my excitement for this project.

Maybe there was something else to talk about, but seems right to quit here. Hope you all had a nice, restful and/or productive weekend.

The Value of Information

English: The logo used by Wikileaks
English: The logo used by Wikileaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may already know that WikiLeaks released a draft chapter of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) treaty Wednesday. The leaked chapter deals with intellectual property, but moves far beyond any copyright controversy. The Verge reports that Knowledge Ecology International called it “bad for access to knowledge, bad for access to medicine, and profoundly bad for innovation.”

The Verge’s report is more technical. The Guardian’s story is more mainstream. See this document (PDF) from Public Citizen for a more detailed, wonky summary of “What’s New in the WikiLeaks TPP Text?”

The free trade treaty (being negotiated in secret by the governments of Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam and the United States) threatens to come into force with very little public discussion. One task of serious journalism is to force transparency in government.

This is why a completely unrelated development is certainly symbiotic. Pierre Omidyar announced the hiring of former Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates for his new journalistic venture, as yet unnamed. This project (dubbed “NewCo” for now) collects storied investigative reporters (Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Milwaukee native Jeremy Scahill) with other journalists to create a serious 21st century media outlet. Omidyar says “Eric will be instrumental in helping us define our editorial strategy for a general-interest audience as well as the editing infrastructure we will need to support our independent journalists.”

I believe that this project could set a new standard for journalism, one that helps us all become better informed, and ultimately, more active citizens. If anyone over there is listening, I’d love to be part of it!

Tracking the Worst Storm Ever

Let me be honest: This was going to be a rant about how cutbacks in international coverage by the mass media in the United States had left folks on this side of the Pacific Ocean under-informed about Typhoon Haiyan. The source of my anger (really) was turning on The Weather Channel last night before going to bed, and finding yet another trivial filler program. Of course, at that time, Haiyan was still just a threat to the Philippines (if a massive one), or perhaps making landfall. Not much news yet.

Speaking of massive, if you haven’t seen pictures of the storm, here’s one that should amaze you, Haiyan from orbit (by way of the Guardian):

Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan from orbiting satellites

This morning, I woke up to this report from NPR’s Morning Edition, but was too groggy to take any of the information in. At this point, the onslaught had definitely begun, but reporters belonged in safer locations. One can only imagine what it would be like trying to stand up in front of a camera with wind gusts approaching 200 miles per hour!

During the day, I followed The Guardian’s rolling coverage when not doing real work (their Minute-by-Minute page is terrific for following any big UK or global story, by the way. You’ll find soccer and cricket matches too.). I usually check the BBC on my iPod for quick updates, too, but they didn’t seem to have much information.

When I got home from work is when I started feeling foolish about my initial coverage assessment. All the old network newscasts opened with the storm, with amazing and disturbing video. A scan of all my iPod news apps brought me largely up to date (though I still think it’s a little weird that the PBS Newshour partners with ITN in Britain for international stories, rather than its fellow public broadcaster, the BBC). Though I haven’t checked yet, I imagine The Weather Channel is doing a better job than last night too.

What remains true is that, unless there is a direct impact on the US, TV journalists usually don’t have “boots on the ground” anymore. I hope that changes soon.

How do you get your international news? How important to you is learning about what happens outside of North America? Do you miss your favorite foreign correspondent?

Feel free to post information on Haiyan relief too.