Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Digital Payment Blockade Arms Race...

Almost two years ago, when Wikileaks published thousands of classified State Department documents, many large financial companies like Visa, Mastercard, Western Union, PayPal, and others decided to no longer allow payments to be made to the Wikileaks website.  This "donation blockade" very nearly shut down the website completely, and while it ultimately failed to do so, it nevertheless proved its effectiveness as an existential threat to, basically, any website deemed undesirable.

Now, in response, Daniel Ellsberg (from the famous Pentagon Papers Supreme Court Case) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have announced that they're creating of the Freedom of the Press Foundation - an independent organization that will help raise money and channel it to websites that are the targets of future donation blockades.
How would it work?  As Forbes describes...

On the Foundation’s website, any user will be able to make a donation through an encrypted form, specifying which organization under the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s umbrella will receive the funds. By mixing groups together under its banner, the Foundation hopes to make it more difficult for funding to be cut off to any one of them, and to also offer donors a way to make a contribution to a controversial group like WikiLeaks without publicly revealing that they’ve done so.
Whether we call this crowdfunding or proxy funding, the central idea is to hide the identities of who's making financial donations and to then hide how that money gets disbursed.  It's ironic that these are the explicit goals of an advocacy group championing the cause of freedom of information.

Notice that what's developing before our very eyes is a digital arms race between those who want to utilize payment blockades as a means of controlling Internet content and those who seek to liberate that content through circumvention.  What's additionally noteworthy is how all of this is occurring outside of the legal arena.  After all, Wikileaks was never found to be in violation of U.S. law.  It's a completely private sector phenomenon.

My question is whether supporters and opponents of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, regardless of which side they fall on, would stand by their arguments being made here when applied to a different context - say, campaign finance reform?  Do the same people support and oppose anonymous political campaign contributions?


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Web (Some People Think They've) Lost...

Blogger Anil Dash is getting a decent amount of attention for posting about "The Web We Lost".  He highlights a number of ways in which the more open social web of a decade ago has gradually been replaced by the more tightly controlled social web of today, and argues that people need to be reminded about "what the Web means".

We've lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we've abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today's social networks, they've brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they've certainly made a small number of people rich.

But they haven't shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they've now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

It's an argument that's certainly been made before.  Reminiscing with nostalgia about the Internet of the 1990s where practically everything was freely and openly accessible, then turning with dismay at the "walled gardens" of sites like Facebook, which are essentially private clubs that deny access to their content to the rest of the Web, the argument is put forth that today's social web leads to corporate turf wars where the user winds up with reduced interoperability and where someone else owns all of our personal content.

However, I would take issue with a few of Dash's points.  First of all, if we're harkening back to the late 90s, a lot of people's entire experience on the Internet took place completely within that original social web giant, AOL - which was one of the greatest walled gardens of all time.  You can even make a plausible argument that the walled gardens of today are more open and accessible than the walled gardens of the past.

Second, the examples of Flickr and Technorati are used to show how photos and other social content used to be more easily tagged, searchable, and discoverable.  But even most social network users of today, who notoriously pay very little attention to privacy, would be aghast at the thought of all their photos and content being instantly discoverable to any Web user outside their approved social network of friends.  The market actually met a need that the older sites weren't adequately servicing.  And, yes, there of plenty of cases where Facebook photos get copied and shared publicly anyway, but at least the site doesn't make that the default as a matter of policy.

Additionally, it seems like an exaggeration to say that Google AdSense has corrupted hyperlinks forever.  While, of course, there's widespread monetization, that's a pretty cynical view.  Also, his claim that a decade ago, "if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions", is really not how some of us remember things.  Dash seems to be romanticizing a bit here.   

My favorite point, though, is this...

In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company's site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.

I personally love this idea, to a large extent follow this path myself, and even recommend it to students.  But not everyone has even the elementary technical skills to necessary to maintain their own website with constantly updated content.  And just because people generally choose to use a walled social network rather than hosting much of their online social identity in an open-Web approach, there's absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so if that's what they want.  It's an individual choice.  No one's hand is being forced.

The modern social web shouldn't be looked at in strictly binary terms where it's either a positive or negative development, and people shouldn't have to make the choice between which is better, the social Web of today versus the social Web of a decade ago.  We're fortunate for the benefits that today's incarnation has brought us, yet we'd probably all see some benefit from at least a few of the walls in those walled gardens to open up a bit.  Ideally, we need both approaches existing concurrently, side-by-side, with users being empowered to make their choices uninhibited.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

White House Petitioners Want a Death Star by 2016...

A few years ago, the Obama Adminstration unveiled an initiative called "We The People" in order to grant everyone the ability to directly petition the White House.  Basically, anybody can submit a petition to the website, and for any petition that gathers 25,000 e-signatures, the White House will issue an official response.

Sounds great, right?  Philosophically, the idea can be linked to such noble democratic aspirations as direct democracy, the wisdom of crowds, governmental accessibility, transparency, accountability... you name it.

But in reality, "We The People" has often become a case study in Web 2.0 gone awry.

Last month, in the wake of the President's re-election, 20 petitions were submitted calling for states to secede from the Union.

Now, topping that, an actual petition has been submitted to the White House (thank you Star Wars fanatics) calling for the United States government to secure funding and resources, and begin construction on a Death Star by 2016.  It's even framed in terms of economic stimulus...

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

Everyone's having fun with it.  Politico writes, "The petition needs 24,505 more signatures to generate a White House response — and several hundred years of technological progress to become a reality".

Commenters on the website itself are also game.  Zach Claywell writes, "As President of Earth, I would vote in favor of such a program. [However, instead of a planet-destroying laser (which could fall into the wrong hands on Earth, or a villain on Dr Who), I would have it play an awesome laser light show.]". 

Likewise, Brad VanHorn adds, "Hmm...might work! But change it to an exploratory ark that will launch to the abyss with all republicans on it".

All of which is super-amusing and if this doesn't put a smile on your face than you're surely made of stone.  That said, it also highlights everything that's wrong with trying to directly crowdsource public policy.  Unfortunately, the "We The People" experiment seems to have become a joke.