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.

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!

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

Net Neutrality: 3 corporations vs every other person

Wednesday, July 12 is a National Day of Action to defend the net neutrality rules that allow ordinary people the same amount of access to the Internet as the big corporations.

You’ve probably heard a lot about “fake news” lately. If net neutrality goes away, it’s the Internet Service Providers (your phone, wireless, cable company) who will get to decide how much it costs for your message to reach readers, listeners and viewers. It’s not hard to imagine that if making money or gaining power is your primary reason for being online, you’ll pay the toll to get your “news” (fake or not) out. Cost of doing business. If you’re sharing your expertise, or just spouting off (it’s your right), you’ll probably find the toll a little too steep, and find some other way to sound off.

Whenever you’re seeing this, do take the time to visit the Battle for the Net site right now, where you’ll get a variety of tools to make an impact:

  • File a comment with the Federal Communications Commission (copied to your members of Congress)
  • Share the fight on Facebook and Twitter
  • Show up at your congressional offices at 6PM on Wednesday to tell your representatives what you think
  • Make a video to show the FCC you’re a real live human, not a troll or a bot!
  • Oh yeah, they’ll ask for money too, if you have some to spare

I’m proud that Automattic, the company behind WordPress, will be part of this one-day action. Twitter, Reddit, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Kickstarter, Etsy, Vimeo, Private Internet Access, Mozilla, OK Cupid, Imgur, PornHub, Medium, and hundreds of other major sites are also participating.

Thanks for taking action! Feel free to discuss your actions and responses in the comments.

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!