Monthly Archives: March 2011

Interview with Tim Wu, author of “The Master Switch”, this Friday

Update: The interview is now available for download from the Little Atoms website.

My work for Little Atoms just keeps getting more and more fun. This week’s edition features Neil Denny and I interviewing Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality”, about his new book The Master Switch. I loved reading this book. In it, Wu presents the last century-or-so of communications history as a cyclical battle between the opposing forces of disruption and monopoly. The book is rich with detail, with a lightness of narrative touch which makes it a really comfortable read.

Although some reviews of the book have focussed on Wu’s proposals for legislation to enshrine net neutrality in the US, what I found most interesting was his related focus on the business of Hollywood, the development of massive media conglomerates in the eighties and nineties and their effect on artistic output. For Wu it is as important if not more so to look at the way communications markets act on free expression as it is to study law and policy. With a few notable exceptions, the history of communications has been a history of legislators happy to accommodate the business models of incumbent operators. Broadly, this is “entertainment that sells”, meaning entertainment that sells advertising: diversity and pluralism are sacrificed for reach. In this atmosphere, writes Wu, “mediocrity begets mediocrity”.

One of the most compelling sections of the book sheds light on Hollywood’s shift from auteur-centred film to film as vehicle for wider intellectual property promotion across a consolidated media landscape. Wu compares a list of the most expensive films of the 2000s (including Spiderman III, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Superman Returns, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with its 1960s equivalent and finds the recent blockbusters heavily skewed towards sequels based around “an easily identifiable property with an existing reputation, appeal and market value”, concluding “a film like Transformers or Iron Man doesn’t just earn box office revenue, it demonstrably drives the sale of the associated toys, comic books and, of course, sequels”. This, writes Wu, “has everything to do with the business’s being part of conglomerate structures”.

Consolidated media: the big six

No wonder Hollywood is so keen to ramp up intellectual property protections. Reading The Master Switch it becomes clearer than ever that the effort the film industry puts in to influencing legislators (the MPAA recently hired former Senator and Presidential candidate Chris Dodd to fill Jack Valenti’s shoes, his salary alone is reportedly $1.2m) is nothing to do with fighting a rear guard action against online “piracy” and everything to do with shoring up its business against the disruptive new technology of the ‘net. It is a replay of the reconsolidation of the US telecommunications industry after Bell was broken up in the 1970s, a repeat of the pincer movement described by Wu with, on the one hand, elaborate and expansive political lobbying and, on the other, aggressive business practice. But whereas James Grimmellman can write of the Google Books settlement, “the Ninth Circle of antitrust hell is reserved for price fixers”, reports that the music and movie business deliberately block access to their back catalogues through punitive licensing arrangements, while steadfastly refusing to cooperate around compulsory licensing policy go pretty much unremarked. In another age, writes Wu, corporations of the size of Viacom and Disney would have attracted the attention of competition regulators.

The most tantalising thing about The Master Switch is that since Wu handed it in to his publishers, he has been hired by the US Federal Trade Commission as a policy advisor. So I asked him, purely theoretically of course, if he could only bring one anti-trust suit, would he pick Google (who he also labels “a monopoly” in the book) or one of the major media conglomerates? If you want to know which one he picked, you can listen to the broadcast, which goes out on Resonance 104.4FM on Friday night at 7pm, and which, if you don’t live in London, you can listen to online here. I’ll put a link to the podcast just as soon as it goes up.

New essay for openDemocracy: The Freedom Cloud

Today, openDemocracy published my first essay for them in just under four years, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called “The freedom cloud” and it poses the question: what if what we’re witnessing in the Arab world is the end of the web’s liberating promise, and not the beginning?

The essay takes a tour of some of the ideas about the internet’s global development that most got me thinking recently, including Ethan Zuckerman’s observations on hypergiants, and Evgeny Morozov’s take on the need for cyber-pragmatism. It ends up at Eben Moglen’s recent call for a recovery of the net’s original system architecture, through the development of “freedom boxes”, a call that has been echoed by Douglas Rushkoff.

Here’s an excerpt:

Hackers are an inclusive bunch, and usually don’t object to extended use of the term. In their own way the dedicated, self-motivated activists that helped seed Egypt’s revolution are also hackers. This is reflected in the media’s resort to the jargon of the techno-utopian world of the 1990s to describe them: “small pieces loosely joined” in a “network” that is “connected”, whose news and appeals spread “virally” in a way that allows them to act in an “agile” yet “loosely coordinated” way, organising protests that become a “meme” and ultimately even the revolution – a “network effect” itself.

Yet the promiscuity of language is also a trap, in that the web tools of the Arab renaissance are very far from those of the cyber-utopians. Facebook is a hierarchy, not a network. Twitter is a hierarchy, not a network. Gmail is a hierarchy, not a network. Yes, those of us who use these tools are “networked”: we are, as the utopians would say, loosely joined. But we are also fused to the corporate giants that provide and profit from these tools, through whose buzzing servers our intimate or banal exchanges pass.

Read the rest.

It also gets into Wikileaks territory – although, on the advice of oD’s excellent Deputy Editor David Hayes, I’ve cut-and-saved a lot of this material for a subsequent piece. Given the proliferation of comment on Wikileaks since events escalated in December last year, more of the same is probably not too thrilling a proposition for most people. Wikileaks took discourse on net freedoms into what I heard one participant at last year’s Chaos Computer Congress describe as “a different theatre of operations”, and I don’t mind telling you that it freaked the hell out of me. So finding myself in a position where I feel able to write something useful and interesting about it is, personally, a big deal.

There is much more to come. For the last year-and-a-bit I’ve been writing a book which explores the origins and the future of cyber-utopian ideals and which features interviews with Stewart Brand, Rop Gonggrijp, Cory Doctorow, Ethan Zuckerman, Daniel Schmitt and Phil Booth. It also has one of the earliest interviews you’ll read with Julian Assange. Thanks in part to Wikileaks, as I was writing it, the metaphorical ground I was on shifted under me, making what was an exercise in cultural anthropology turn into something more like an adventure story. The book is called Barefoot into Cyberspace, and it will be published in the coming few months.

Links for week ending 25 March 2011

Court rejects Google Books settlement
The BBC reports that a New York federal district court has rejected the settlement proposed in the class action suit brought against Google by the Author’s Guild of America. The judge ruled that the settlement, which would have permitted Google to continue digitising and making available books protected by copyright in exchange for an annual flat royalty fee, would give Google a “de facto monopoly” over digitised books. Inside Higher Ed reports on the various interests which influenced the case, highlighting law professor Pamela Samuelson’s influential amicus brief, while the Chronicle of Higher Education discuss an alternative solution to licensing book digitisation being promoted by the director of the Internet Archive, Peter Brantley. Noted Google critic Siva Vaidhyanathan praises the court’s decision, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) focus on the judge’s acknowledgement of the worrying privacy implications of the settlement.
BBC report | Inside Higher Ed report | Chronicle of Higher Education report | Siva Vaidhyanathan | EFF

US/Azeri “weaponisation” of social media: reports emerge from hacked emails
The Guardian reports that United States Central Command, a branch of the US military, has commissioned software to help its agents manage multiple “online personas” designed to intervene in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto-language online conversations. According to The Tech Herald, the existence of the persona management software contracts first emerged from hacked emails belonging to US security firm HBGary and released on the web by associates of Anonymous. Links with ongoing security service operations in Azerbaijan against opposition activists who use social media are currently being investigated by Global Voices.
Guardian | The Tech Herald | Global Voices

Member States refuse to provide information on EU transparency negotiations
Access Info Europe have released a report which highlights the dire state of transparency at Europe’s Council of Ministers. Of 27 Member States approached by Access Info, 23 used domestic right to information law exceptions to excuse themselves from releasing all or part of the information requested, which – ironically – had to do with ongoing negotiations at the Council around proposed transparency reforms.

Open Networking Foundation pursues new standards
A large group of information technology companies including Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Verizon this week launched the Open Networking Foundation, a new initiative to cooperate on a suite of open networking standards called OpenFlow. The New York Times reports: “the benefits, proponents say, would be more flexible and secure networks that are less likely to suffer from congestion”.

The coming battle for Africa’s internet
This Atlantic feature predicts how local and global web and software developers will seek to exploit Africa’s fast-growing online market.

Crowdsourced data is not a substitute for real statistics
Members of the Benetech community debunk recent research suggesting that crowd-sourced data could meaningfully help disaster relief efforts.

An introduction to the federated social network
This is a great primer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the rise of new approaches to social networking that remove the need for personal data to be controlled by centralised corporations “whose business models are generally based on gathering, using, and monetizing data about you; and which may be vulnerable to government pressure tactics.”

ONI: Year in Review
The Open Net Initiative publish their annual report into the state of internet censorship across the world.

Interview: Claudio Aspesi
Richard Poynder interviews market analyst Claudio Aspesi about his dark predictions for the world of scholarly publishing as the Open Access movement and the global financial downturn each serve to threaten its bottom line.

Data visualisation: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests
An innovative and compelling visual index of the Guardian’s coverage of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Requiem for Networks: Ken Hollings on BBC Radio 3 every night this week

I’ve just finished listening to the first in a series of five audio essays by writer and broadcaster Ken Hollings being aired this week on BBC Radio 3, collectively entitled “Requiem for Networks”. Ken is truly one of the most thought-provoking, out-there thinkers on technology and the human condition I have ever come across. He makes Clay Shirky look like a broken automaton.

Minotaur and labyrinth, courtesy of Wikipedia

The fifteen minute essays are being broadcast at 11pm every night this week. Last night’s was “Welcome to the Labyrinth“, a theme Ken and I discussed in June last year on his regular Resonance 104.4 show, Hollingsville. Go listen.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Links for week ending 18 March 2011

State Department may lose anti-censorship cash
Politico reports that legislators on both sides of the political divide in the United States are considering proposals to transfer a large part of the budget allocated to the State Department to support online censorship circumvention technology to another government entity, following the State Department’s slowness at spending the $50m in funds. US academics and practitioners including Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, Rebecca MacKinnon and staff from the Center for Democracy and Technology have written an open letter condemning the proposals.
Story | Letter

United Nations continues to undermine IGF
Kieren McCarthy reports for dot-nxt on why bureaucratic uncertainty surrounding the future of the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) may mask more fundamental disagreements between China and the West on the scope and shape of the institution.

Burmese junta rules VoIP illegal
The Burmese military junta has issued an official instruction stating that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype are illegal under existing telecommunications legislation. The instruction states that use of VoIP services has caused a decline in revenue from official overseas calls through the state’s own communication services. The Irrawaddy reports that “overseas phone calls using the junta-run service are so expensive that the majority of people in Burma cannot afford to use them”.

Agency has valuable Japanese radiation monitoring data it can’t share
The Nature blog reports news that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CNTBTO), an international agency that collects extensive data on radiation levels across the world, is unable to release that data to the wider public because it has no mandate to do so. By contrast, the agency has had a mandate to release hydroacoustic and seismic for the purposes of tsunami warnings ever since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

US proposals for secret “Son Of ACTA” treaty leaked
Techdirt reports on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), a new secret trade agreement being pushed by the United States Trade Representative that contains many of the draconian intellectual property enforcement provisions of early drafts of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The report labels the new initiative “a sickening display of crony capitalism and regulatory capture at work”.

Turkish Blogspot blocking order revoked
Public Prosecutors in Turkey have revoked a blocking order on the popular blogging platform Blogspot that has been in place since January this year. The move follows several appeals lodged by both Google and Cyber-Rights Turkey.

European Court of Justice rejects stem-cell patents
The European Court of Justice has issued a preliminary opinion that procedures involving human embryonic stem cells are not patentable. The opinion follows a case presented to the court by the German Federal Supreme Court after it was asked to rule on a stem cell patent in a case brought by Greenpeace on ethical grounds.

A Legacy at Risk: How the new Ministry of Culture in Brazil reversed its digital agenda
Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, argues that Brazil’s new culture minister, Ana de Hollanda, is betraying the legacy of her predecessor, Gilberto Gil.

Report: Media Piracy in Emerging Economies
This major new report from the Social Science Research Council brings together expertise and hard data from around the world to expose the industry myth-making around digital copyright infringement that lies behind draconian enforcement legislation and protectionist trade agreements. Includes contributions from the Association for Progressive Communications and the Center for Technology and Society (FGV, Brazil).

Eight lessons from three years working on transparency
An essay by Owen Barder of AidInfo on the lessons he’s learned from three years working with major donors to open up data about international aid.

Anonymous no more
This Economist feature details how a combination of advances in behavioural tracking and browser vulnerabilities are serving to effectively de-anonymise the web.

oAfrica: Tracking ICT Progress
Online Africa is a new website dedicated to disseminating information relating to the African internet.

Interview: Yochai Benkler
This interview with Yochai Benkler summarises his forthcoming article on the legal case, or lack of one, the US government has against Wikileaks: “It is not, as a matter of law, sustainable to treat WikiLeaks or Assange any differently than the New York Times and its reporters”.

Links for week ending 11 March 2011

US and UK governments linked to national DNA database in UAE
The Council for Responsible Genetics and GeneWatch UK have uncovered links between the UK and US governments and plans in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to develop a universal national DNA database. “A universal DNA database would allow the Emirates to track every citizen and identify their relatives: a frightening prospect for dissidents and women” said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK.

More Facebook activists face arrest report arrests of activists using Facebook to plan protest activities or share messages of solidarity on Facebook in Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. The reports highlight issues around Facebook’s contentious ongoing policy against user pseudonyms on the site.

China pledges to step up administration of internet
Reports submitted to the National People’s Congress in China this week indicate Chinese authorities’ intention to step up regulation of the internet in order to keep pace with technological developments. Enhanced investment in fiber optic broadband was also announced.

Obama administration joins critics of ICANN
The United States Commerce Department has “put ICANN on notice”, according to this report in the Washington Post, for failing to respond to concerns about its practice being voiced by the international community. ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the US-based non-profit organisation responsible for regulating the assignment of domain names across the web, and was created with the help of the US government in 1998.

Zim mobile provider cuts off unregistered users
Zimbabwe’s News Day report that the country’s three mobile phone operators began disconnecting tens of thousands of their customers this week, after a deadline passed mandating them to register their SIM cards. Mandatory SIM card registration is widely perceived as a policy used by governments to facilitate surveillance of their citizens, and has also been proposed in, among other places, Nigeria, the Philippines and Mozambique.

Libya withdraws from internet
Internet monitoring firms are reporting that internet traffic flows in and out of Libya appear to have been completely severed. The London Internet Exchange reports: “Because all of Libya’s international traffic flows through a single, state-run provider, the authorities were able to put the internet in ‘warm standby mode’ rather than shutting it down completely. Compare this with Egypt, where the Mubarak regime had to grapple with five independent ISPs with international connectivity.”

Facebook and Twitter opt not to sign free speech pact
This New York Times article calls out Facebook and Twitter for refusing to sign up to the Global Network Initiative, and discusses the initiative’s future: “the recent Middle East uprisings have highlighted the crucial role technology can play in the world’s most closed societies, which leaders of the initiative say makes their efforts even more important”.

A Declaration of Cyber-War
This Vanity Fair feature tracks the story of Stuxnet, a computer virus that targeted industrial systems and that is speculated to have had the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility as its ultimate target: “Stuxnet is the Hiroshima of cyber-war… We have crossed a threshold, and there is no turning back.”

The internet’s unholy marriage to capitalism
This long essay by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W McChesney for the Monthly Review charts the internet’s transformation from military-funded research project through anti-commercial hippy utopia to engine of global capitalism.

Economist debate: Internet democracy
At the end of February, the Economist hosted a lively online debate between John Palfrey and Evgeny Morozov around the motion “This house believes that the internet is not inherently a force for democracy”.
This new website created by the UK Media Standards Trust allows users to identify “churanlism”, news articles published as journalism which are essentially just rehashes of corporate, government and other third party press releases.

Visualisation: African Undersea Cables
Steve Song provides a visual history of the development of undersea cables to serve the African continent.

Infographic: Social media equivalents in China
This inforgraphic displays the Chinese equivalents of the rest of the English-speaking web’s most popular social media services.

Net neutrality: review of Tim Wu and Barbara van Schewick
Evgeny Morozov reviews two new works which address net neutrality for the Boston Review.

Interview: David Hammerstein of TACD
Knowledge Ecology International interview former member of the European Parliament David Hammerstein about his work on behalf of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) advocating at the World Intellectual Property Organisation for better access to reading materials for the visually impaired.