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.

http://livestream.com/accounts/686369/events/4119762/player?width=560&height=315&autoPlay=true&mute=false

“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!

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.

https://twitter.com/anildash/status/571007947498774528

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.

centre

(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 consentofthenetworked.com, 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.

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.

Celebrate Aaron Swartz Day

November 8 should have been Aaron Swartz‘s 28th birthday. But for an overzealous prosecutor, Swartz would likely still be innovating, still be rousing the rabble, still be sharing information that the rest of us need.

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.

Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t know much about Swartz the human being while he was alive, but what I’ve learned about him since he died almost two years ago has been quite the inspiration. Go read his Wikipedia page, if you don’t know of his legacy. Then go visit Reddit, another bit of code he helped with.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll see another silent homage to Aaron Swartz: the Creative Commons license under which I share this blog’s conten.

By the time you read this, it’s likely too late to take part in the Swartz Day hackathon happening in several cities around the globe. I’ve already missed the showing of the Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. But you don’t need to participate in an official event to honor Aaron Swartz. You just need to take some steps in his memory. Share some important information with someone who needs it, be it on your own blog (Today would be a good day to start a blog, by the way), Reddit, on your favorite social media site — or live and in person.

Information in the right hands is powerful , and Aaron Swartz knew that today’s powerful people hold information that keeps the less powerful in their place. So go empower someone today.

Stuff I’ve been obsessing about lately

The first week of National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) has been a busy one, and all my planning (yeah, all of it) has not exactly been followed. Nonetheless, I persevere.

As the week concludes, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things. I’m not sure if this list may foreshadow future posts, or are just random doodles. I hope this will be informative; if not, I hope it will be entertaining. If you’d like to see more thoughts about any of the above, throw something in the comments.

  • Congressfolk are considering a major revision of the Communications Act of 1996.
    English: Newt Gingrich

    Newt Gingrich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    That year, the big telecom companies wrote portions of the bill while locked in Newt Gingrich‘s office. Will that happen again?

  • What email client should I use in openSUSE 13.2
  • Can I get an invitation to Ello before it becomes utterly un-cool? Have I already missed the boat on that?
  • Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview

    Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    I am quite inspired by Tim Berners-Lee on most days. Especially when he calls for things like an ‘Internet Magna Carta,’ as he did a few weeks ago. Can we get that?

  • Is this guy right about OpenOffice and LibreOffice never, never, ever getting back together?
  • Deeply curious about this connected learning idea, but I have no sense of how I could participate.
  • Same goes for building mesh networks.
  • Too many organizations I belong to are fretting about attracting new people. Are real-life groups becoming a casualty of the Internet, or does economics play a role?
  • Should I learn more web code? What code (JavaScript? PHP? Python? Ruby? Something else?)? How?
  • Will the Internet remain a global haven for democracy? If not, what then?

Well, I didn’t want this to be a Top Ten list, but look how it turned out.

What are you obsessing about lately? Is this list the sign of an overheated brain?

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?

Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Intelligence

Douglas Engelbart

Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

It’s been a week since Doug Engelbart died. You may not know him as well as some of the other pioneers of personal computing, but he was an amazing person by all accounts.

I first learned about his ideas and life story in John Markoff’s excellent 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

In this book, NY Times reporter Markoff describes the competition between two technological world views represented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early to mid-1960s. Engelbart led the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), “dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind.” Across the Stanford campus, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), led by John McCarthy, “began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

“One group,” Markoff wrote, “worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.”

Engelbart was originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s postwar essay, “As We May Think,” that, among other things, described the Memex, envisioned as a really smart piece of office furniture. This article from The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal tells you a lot about that encounter.

An illustration of Vannevar Bush's Memex, from Life Magazine

An illustration of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, from Life Magazine

At the ARC, Engelbart and his research team put together both concepts and devices that really form the basis of many of the bits that govern our technological lives today. Nearly all of Engelbart’s obituaries included the phrase “Inventor of the Computer Mouse.” But that was certainly not all he did. Take the time to watch what Steven Levy dubbed “The Mother of All Demos,” delivered December 9, 1968. You’ll be amazed, I think.

If you read some of these obits, you may actually conclude that Engelbart’s peaked some 45 years ago. This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, I’m afraid. I will discuss this further in another post, as this one’s getting a little long. More links next time too!

For now, you can learn a bit more about Engelbart’s legacy in this very sharp piece from Bret Victor.

I got this Engelbart quote from Boing Boing. It’s a fitting epitaph:

“The key thing about all the world’s big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively. If we don’t get collectively smarter, we’re doomed.” – Douglas Engelbart (1925- 2013)

Let us mourn for freshmeat.net

UPDATE 6/19/10: Lisa Hoover tweeted at me earlier this week “… Consider the source before you believe this crap.” I do plan to keep an eye on freshmeat; I sure hope she’s right. MM

Robin “Roblimo” Miller reported this weekend that the future looked bad for pioneering free software repository freshmeat.net.

Geek.net, the parent company of SourceForge.net, Slashdot.org, ThinkGeek.com, Geek.com, freshmeat.net, and ohloh.net, has told employees that it will be closing freshmeat.net and ohloh.net. This information has not yet been released to the public, but we’ve heard it from more than one Geek.net employee.

While not exactly shocking, it is a sad moment for many longtime Linux geeks. In the days before broadband Internet connections and automatic distribution updates, freshmeat (yes, it’s still there as I write this) was the go-to site for new and interesting open source software. A decade ago, when I was first getting acquainted with Linux, you’d read about assorted new projects to make a Linux version of, say, a desktop publisher. The article, whether it was online or in print (usually  Linux Journal), would invariably conclude with a link to the project’s freshmeat page. This is how I found the Scribus desktop publisher, among other things.

In those days around the turn of the century, you’d be lucky if the developer(s) made up an RPM package for easy installation into a Red Hat Linux system. Sometimes those RPMs would even work on SUSE Linux. More often, though, you’d just get a tarball; the source code bundled into a GZip archive with standard instructions to use make to compile the code into your system. Occasionally your idiot scribe would get these applications to work without breaking any other important piece of the system.

It’s not like Linux was brand new, but the idea of ordinary people using Linux and other free software for ordinary tasks outside of programming and networking was still a bit odd. That was also what made freshmeat exciting–Granted it was cooler to help develop it, but you really did feel like you were on the cutting edge simply downloading this stuff and trying it out.

Roblimo’s piece outlines the corporate history of freshmeat, and some of the changes that brought the site to this point. I’d guess that the development of ever-easier ways of adding software to a Linux system (including openSUSE’s zypper, and the always terrific and ever-improving apt-get) played its part too.

There are lots of projects that debuted on freshmeat that never became household names, but the site probably inspired more than a few of today’s army of software developers. For now, let us have a moment of silence for this fine project, and the people who have worked on it over the years. Many thanks!