Decentralized Web Pt 2: Surveillance and Privacy

In the last post, I focused on the “walled garden” problem associated with the oligarchy that dominates web traffic today — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. That’s not the only issue associated with the Frightful Five, though. Consider your privacy online.

You’ve probably heard the bit about “if the web service is free for your use, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” It’s as true as it ever was, and if you need more proof, consider why your internet service provider is so keen to remove legal restrictions on sharing your personal information — they argue a need because the content companies have no such restrictions.

Protecting privacy and anonymity onlineAnother privacy issue related to your online conduct is that it’s becoming harder to be anonymous on the web. Here are some ways to do it. That can be a good thing; we all want online bullies, harassers and trolls to be controlled. But consider all those people who live under repressive regimes, where bloggers who write things counter to the prevailing political or cultural winds wind up jailed, tortured, or dead. An enhanced surveillance state isn’t much good for democracy either.

Do I have to mention the threats to privacy represented by the potential for electronic identity theft? With so many folks trying to break security and breaches happening so often, at some point, someone will get access to Facebook’s database.

Nearly Getting it Right

Today, you have the option of creating and maintaining your own site on the World Wide Web. Having control over your own space online allows you to define what information you are willing to share with what subset of humanity. This should be the goal, not simply posting your thoughts, plans and activities to some other billion-dollar corporate entity, hoping that they will do the right thing with your information.

Curiously enough, it was Google Plus that seemed to understand how sharing online content by and from users should be done. They made it easy to define Circles, people who received only information from you that you intended them to see. Unlike Facebook, which wants everything you share to be Public (perhaps in part so they can be less concerned about hiding material that ought not be public).

Of course, like Facebook, Google wants you to post all the things you’re interested in so that they can collect data to better sell you to advertisers. Perhaps that’s a reason Google Plus became one of the more notable Google project failures.

Having your own website is a start, but isn’t everything. In the next post, I want to tell you about the IndieWeb, a way station to the decentralized web.

What concerns you most about the centralized web described here? Do you have a personal experience with lack of privacy or oversharing in social media? Further questions on what the decentralized web might look like? Add a comment!

What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

In my relaunch post a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of building an open, decentralized web.

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.
This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It’s signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

As I write this, we mark the first anniversary of the Decentralized Web Summit (DWS) held at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I wasn’t there, but was inspired by the ideas shared there. Click the link to see video of the keynote addresses given there, and much more information on what happened there. You may also find this Fast Company story from two of my favorite writers, Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks quite useful.

It’s occurred to me that in the year since the summit, the term “decentralized web” hasn’t gained the traction among ordinary folk that “net neutrality” has.  In this and the next couple posts, I’m here to help.

We once solved a big problem with the internet

When the World Wide Web was born, most people got online through one of two commercial services: Prodigy and America Online. If you don’t remember, these companies offered dial-up access to news, games, and community — all of which were located inside the walls of each service. Both companies worked hard to keep you inside their walled garden, even after they started offering content from the open Internet.

At that time, your “online service” completely controlled what access you had to the information resources of the wider internet. They also controlled the look-and-feel of those resources, so even if they offered a gateway outside the walled garden, you might not realize it.

Eventually, demand for full internet access forced the corporate online services to acquiesce, even though they probably knew that their internally generated content could never compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Today’s oligarchy

The problem today is not that far away from the early 1990s. Consider this:

Tim Berners-Lee, who won the Turing Award for inventing the World Wide Web in the first place, describes the new problem this way in this interview with The New York Times: “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times has a slightly different list; omitting Twitter and adding the operating system behemoths: he calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Do take his survey to see how badly you’re hooked.

In the same interview, Berners-Lee identifies the results of this oligarchical control of the Web:

“It controls what people see, creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites — that completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”

So here we are again.

One solution: (Re)Decentralize the Web

The long-term solution would seem to be breaking up the Frightful Five, and putting users in control. But that’s easier said than done. I have long advocated that writers should have an online home of their own, but Berners-Lee highlights the problem that is everyone’s.

In the interests of preserving your time, I’ll stop now. In the next couple of posts, I hope to further explain the issue of centralization, how it affects you, and show you some intermediate steps along the way.

One more thing: Another blog for the Open Web

I want to introduce you to AltPlatform.org, another blog devoted to Open Web technologies. The founders are folks I have a ton of respect for, and (like me) think the time is right to move forward on these ideas.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “decentralized web”? Does my premise reflect reality? What questions do you have? Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer in a subsequent post (if I don’t respond immediately).

 

Net Neutrality Update: Is John Oliver our only champion?

The fight’s begun! Last week, Ajit Pai’s Federal Communications Commission officially launched its “repeal and replace” plan for net neutrality. This principle identifies the level playing field for all content on the internet. You have a couple of months to preserve this principle from corporate assault.

Ajit Pai became FCC chair in January, firmly determined to gut real net neutrality, but with a smiling face. Pai has been giving interviews to a variety of media outlets. His pitch is something like this:

  • Everybody in the universe loves the free and open Internet.
  • The telecommunications companies that offer you and I our Internet connections hate the very idea of offering fast lanes to some content providers, and slow lanes for the rest of us.
  • The 2015 rules (known as the Open Internet Order) are deeply onerous, solve a nonexistent problem, and prevent these telecom giants from building better broadband connections that other industrialized countries take for granted.

Sadly, he leaves out the petty little detail that the telecoms have been busy, before and since the Open Internet Order was ratified, buying content companies.

John Oliver strikes again

Perhaps the first time you heard anything about net neutrality was from John Oliver, the very funny host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Three years ago, when the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission was first proposing  a corporate-friendly version of net neutrality, Oliver devoted one of his first post-Daily Show broadcasts to explaining what net neutrality was, why it was important, and how the proposed FCC rules were inadequate to the challenge. He asked his viewers to make their opinions known to the FCC online. The response crashed the agency’s servers.

About a year, and four million comments, later, the FCC passed strong net neutrality rules on a party line vote. The power of popular pressure on display was absolutely amazing.

The thing is, corporations don’t take defeat well. if they lose a fight, it’s only temporary. It may take time, but they will keep coming as often as necessary. Which brings us to the current situation.

The response: “Really, a comic?”

On Sunday, May 7, Last Week Tonight took up net neutrality again, with a similar result. The presumably beefed-up FCC servers crashed again under the weight of people’s fury. FCC staff even claimed the FCC was under attack by cyber-criminals!

In addition, conservative opponents of real net neutrality were ready for Oliver this time around.

Among other conservative, corporate pundits, Scott Cleland, a former official of the George H. W. Bush administration, wrote that “HBO’s John Oliver needs a Net Neutrality reality check” at TheHill .com on May 8:

“Is net neutrality policy the joke here? Or is the joke really that net neutrality activists think late night comedy is the most effective way for them to influence the FCC on public policy?”

His argument boils down to this: Everything’s changed since Oliver’s first rant. Wheeler could be pressured. Obama could be pressured. Pai already demonstrated that he’s not changing his mind. Trump will stand by Pai. Congress already overturned the privacy rules, and not a single REpublican member of Congress backs net neutrality. And supporters just trot out a comedian (again)?

In this world, the only effective pressure comes from the tech oligarchs.

If there is a political wildcard here, it is the handful of Internet networks that individually or together command that much potential political power. Among them are Google-Android-YouTube-Cloud; Facebook-Messenger-Instagram; Amazon-Prime-AWS; and Microsoft-Azure-Linked-in.

These four unregulated companies are worth $2 trillion, have unmatched media influence, and command dominant market shares in multiple communications-related markets.

Remember that Cleland’s audience at TheHill.com are the lobbyists, bureaucrats and others who need to know how the winds are blowing in DC. The mindset there is that the only actors that matter are the corporate influence-buyers. And most of the time, that is the reality. Cleland wants to tell the rest of us that this net neutrality thing is just a fight among billionaires, that it doesn’t matter who wins, and you and I shouldn’t waste time arguing about it.

But we still live in a democracy, for now at least. While I’m really glad that John Oliver is on our side, he is not our savior; we are the leaders we’ve been looking for. We need to apply a variety of tactics, but make both the FCC and the Congress bend to our will.

Is the fight for net neutrality hopeless? What can ordinary people do to preserve democracy on the internet? Your thoughts — and proposals — are appreciated here. In the meantime, let’s use John Oliver’s link to tell the FCC what we think:

http://www.gofccyourself.com

See also

Welcome Back! Let’s fight for an Open Web

Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

Create Custom News Streams Based on Your Specific Sources and Filters

News defined by you.

Source: www.defcomb.com

If you’re a nonfiction writer (or even a fiction writer who addresses real-world topics), you need to keep up with the latest news in your field of expertise. @Robin Goodtells us about Defcomb, a new curation tool that finds material on the web relevant to your oh-so-specific needs. I look forward to trying it.

See on Scoop.itBuild Your Author Platform: New Rules

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.

Firefox Developer Edition: A Quick Look

So I’ve spent the evening playing with the Firefox Developer Edition, and watching Nikita

English: Cropped image of Richard Nixon and Ni...
Cropped image of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev debating at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959, part of what came to be known as the Kitchen Debate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Khrushchev tour the US on American Experience on PBS. Firefox is fun, and pretty interesting. Though I have to admit it took me a little while to find the Developer Tools that makes it different. I still just play at developer in my spare time.

Developer Edition comes with a Web console that sits at the bottom of the browser, and a standalone Browser Console window (below) that reports on the current page that you’re working on.

Firefox Browser Console
Firefox Developer Edition Browser Console

The Developer Toolbar is actually the start of a “highly usable command line for web developers.”  Here’s the help file with available commands:

Firefox Developer Toolbar
The Developer Toolbar is really just a command line.

I suspect there’s more to come, but it’s nearly bedtime. Until tomorrow… share any experiences you have with Firefox Developer Edition or your favorite web development/design tool.

Net Neutrality: Five Reasons the President Did the Right Thing

Before leaving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China, President Barack Obama recorded a video message that surprised many. Not only did he declare that “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life,” but he endorsed the only way to defend an open Internet, that is: real net neutrality.

President Obama on Enforcing Net Neutrality

The president now agrees with me on this: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must reclassify Internet Server Providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act to prevent cable, phone and wireless companies from forcing content providers from paying for fast access to your web browser.

The rest of this post is going to assume you know some of the basics about this issue, and I apologize for its deep wonkiness. If you’re not really up to speed, I’ve written about this before, and included some good links there.

Five Reasons

While I’m not privy to the West Wing machinations that led to this statement, I can speculate as well as any other blogger. Here are some of the reasons I think he did the right thing here:

  • The people have spoken: It takes a lot for millions of people to take a stand on a single government regulation, even more for thousands to take to the streets to make sure that government listens. The FCC received some 4 million comments on the original “fast lane” proposal from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. The vast majority of those comments asked for ironclad net neutrality rules, with the real wonks demanding Title II reclassification. Rallies were held in cities across the country to demand compliance with these principles. Powerful movements make change, regardless of who may hold office.

  • The law is on his side: When ruling in Verizon’s favor on the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet rules, the judge in the case said the FCC had used the wrong law to justify their rules. The FCC said it had the right to enforce net neutrality through Section 706 of Communications Act. The court said that the common carrier part of the statute (that is, Title II) was the way to go. The former constitutional law professor in the White House clearly agrees. “Unfortunately, the court ultimately struck down the rules — not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach.”
  • Obama was predisposed: As the statement notes, Obama has always favored the principle of net neutrality. Over the last year, though, he’s been less than specific on what he thought about reclassification. This is new, and again, reflects the impact the movement has.
  • New Chief Technology Officer: The White House offered up Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to discuss the statement on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. Smith came to the White House from Google just a few weeks ago, and you have to wonder if she got on the president’s case to take on this campaign.
  • Follow the money: Free speech should not be a left-right issue, but look how the pundits and politicians responded to the president’s statement. I haven’t combed through the campaign finance statements, but judging simply from all those quotes, I’ll guess that the bulk of telecom money went in the opposite direction from the president’s party.

What’s Next?

One more bit of speculation: FCC chair Wheeler has taken a severe beating after the first “fast lane” rules he proposed in May. Last week, it looked like Wheeler was going to aim for a compromise, hybrid set of rules. These would rely on both Section 706 and Title II regulation. This idea isn’t flying, either. This could mean that Wheeler is at least as much of a lame duck as the president is since the midterm elections.

Wheeler needs both of his Democratic allies on the five-member commission to approve any policy, as the two Republicans are likely to oppose anything that resembles a check on the “free market.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel appears to harbor ambitions to chair the commission one day.

If that’s true, the White House may be signalling to Ms. Rosenworcel that supporting the president on this issue may help her reach her goal sooner.

Ten Years On: Mozilla, Firefox and the Developer Edition

English: This is a icon for Firefox Web Browser.
Firefox Web Browser. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A decade ago, the Mozilla project was in something of a crisis. The once-dominant browser (a direct descendant of Mosaic, the first graphical browser) had long ago been surpassed in usage by Microsoft Internet Explorer, in part the result of Microsoft’s leveraging its dominant operating system to recapture the Internet.

Mozilla was born when Netscape Communicator‘s code opened up to the global developer community, the first piece of “household name” software to go from proprietary to open source code. But the simple browser had become a full-blown suite of communication tools — Email, chat, even a web development environment. All of these tools loaded at once, clogging up computer memory (slowing down computers) and chewing up dial-up bandwidth (slowing down the web). Mozilla needed a strategy to keep the project from spiraling into oblivion.

Kudos to the person who had the idea to split up all the tools, and allow people to run just what they wanted. Thus, Firefox was born! This was the first of the lean browsers, lightning fast for its time, both for loading pages and simply displaying on the screen. Firefox also introduced the idea of modular extensions, allowing independent developers to add functionality to the basic browser engine provided by Mozilla.

Mozilla’s email client became Thunderbird, and won many fans. The web coding tool, Composer, spun off into a series of different applications, none of which ever became popular. Because the code was still open source, even the suite continued under the SeaMonkey banner. All this code runs on practically every operating system known to humans and bots, including the Firefox OS for mobile devices.

Firefox reignited the browser wars, and eventually eclipsed Internet Explorer by out-innovating Microsoft. As a result, Google got into the browser business with Chrome. These days, Chrome is at the top of the browser pile, with Firefox, Apple’s Safari and IE  trailing. As with many things Google, Chrome is a proprietary browser running atop open source code, called Chromium.

Today, the Firefox team released the Firefox Developer Edition, a special browser with built-in tools for both the mobile OS and ordinary web designers and developers. I’ve got this downloaded, and hope to learn more about it in the coming days (if you’ve read through all my NaBloPoMo posts this month, you’ll know that I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me).

Meanwhile, I continue to use Firefox as my primary browser, in part because of its open character, in part out of habit. Happy Birthday Firefox!

One Writer’s Process: Email to Pocket

I’ve been a news junkie all my life. Raised on the Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Sentinel, and the Huntley-Brinkley Report. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised I was never one of Walter Cronkite‘s acolytes, but I think NBC always had a stronger signal than the CBS affiliate in my youth.

English: American broadcast journalist Walter ...
American broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite (b. 1916) on television during 1st presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 23 September 1976. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before I ever touched a computer, I thought I might become a full-time journalist. My then-fiancee put it this way: There must be some way to combine your writing and your news addiction. I gave that a shot, but out-jostling other reporters to get a “scoop” was never my style. Covering and explaining technology turned out to be a better bet for me.

But I still keep up with my responsibilities as a citizen, and try to stay informed on a range of issues. With the US elections coming up on Tuesday, let me tell you one way I keep up: It’s called Pocket.

Originally called Read It Later, Pocket allows you to save articles and just about any other kind of web content for review when you’re not so busy. I make so much use of it, I pay for the Premium version (I get long-term storage and tagging suggestions for the privilege).

The Morning News Funnel

My news funnel largely consists of:

  • Emails that many news sites (specialized and mainstream) send me every morning
  • Newsfeeds that I subscribe to (with Feedspot, if you want to know),
  • Twitter links

I scan these over for a half-hour or so in the morning, and right-click on links to interesting stories. The Pocket extension to Firefox and Chrome offers me a Save Link to Pocket item on my context menu. A dialog box appears that allows me to tag the article (sight unseen), and then save it to my Pocket.

Following Up

I can use Pocket’s mobile app to read offline when I’m eating lunch or riding the bus home. Sometimes I’ll just go to the Pocket website after dinner and read stories in my browser.

You can also share Pocket items via email, Twitter and Facebook. Sharing to Buffer lets you schedule when you share an item. Because they save the page, you can also use any share buttons a site includes.

Oh, by the way – If you find this (or any other post here) interesting, you can save it to Pocket with the share button below.

How do you stay informed? Does your news reading habit feed your writing or blogging addiction? Add something to the Comments!

If you live in the United States, go out and vote!

Book Review: WordPress 3.7 Complete

WordPress 3.7 Complete
WordPress 3.7 Complete

The fine folks at Packt Publishing asked me to have a look at their latest WordPress book, WordPress 3.7 Complete. This is the third edition in the WordPress Complete series, by Karol Krol and Aaron Hodge Silver. I am happy to recommend it to folks looking for a good introduction to WordPress.

Full disclosure: I read the edition covering WordPress 2.7, when I started getting serious about learning WordPress, but missed the edition that covered v3.0.

Packt specializes in web development and open source software books, so you shouldn’t be surprised that the strongest parts of the book are in this area. But you don’t have to know code to find good, solid information here. Chapter 3, “Creating Blog Content” offers a nice introduction to blogging that will help you start thinking about the kind of content to include in your blog, along with an introduction to the WordPress admin pages.The chapter on choosing themes has some excellent questions that you may not think to ask yourself before choosing a theme from the vast collection of choices.

While there’s a basic introduction to WordPress.com, most of the book’s content relates to WordPress on an independent web host. It might have been nice to note what sections (like setting up widgets and working with the Media Library) apply to both the dot-com and dot-org sites.

WordPress Complete really takes off in the second half, where Krol and Silver focus on creating and manipulating themes and plugins. I don’t know about you, but when I started messing with code, the first thing that scared me was the likelihood of me breaking stuff that was already working. Krol and Silver help break down that fear by showing you how to safely remove your header, footer and sidebar from an existing theme’s index.php file (“What, you want me to break my home page!?”), customize each new template file, and reassemble the new modules so that it all works.

Another big plus for the beginning developer is an extensive section about building themes from scratch. After comparing this method with constructing themes with the help of a theme framework like Genesis, Thesis or Thematic, they advise:

… create your first theme manually, just to learn the craft and get to know all the basic structures and mechanisms sitting inside WordPress. Then, as the next step in your mastery (if you’re planning to work on other themes in the future), you can pick one of the popular theme frameworks, get deeply familiar with it, and use it as the base for your future themes from that point on. Such an approach will allow you to reach maximum time efficiency and save you the effort of dealing with the core set of functionalities that every theme needs, regardless of the design or purpose.

After demystifying the process of theme and plugin creation, and introducing BuddyPress and WordPress MultiSite, Krol and Silver focus the last two chapters on “Creating a Non-Blog Website” using the increasingly powerful content management features WordPress offers.

You’ll learn a bit about using Pages to create corporate and e-commerce sites, membership sites and the like. Can I say that as an author, I especially appreciated introducing custom post types by way of creating distinctive ways of listing books on your site? You may see something like this on michaelmccallister.com soon.

Overall, WordPress 3.7 Complete is a fine introduction to WordPress and web development. Incidentally, don’t be upset that the book misses out on WordPress 3.8. With the increasing speed of WordPress core development, all us authors are at a distinct disadvantage–we can only type so fast!

So what do you look for in a WordPress book? Have you read this one? Comments always appreciated.

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