Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Hadrian's Firewall" and Internet Censorship in Britain...

Without much attention, just before Christmas British ISPs put into effect a new system whereby all Internet subscribers would be required to actively choose whether they wanted filtering that would block material in broad categories such as sex, alcohol, violence, and hate speech.  At first glance, this doesn't seem too awful.  The decision is in the hands of the individual consumer, and not the government or a private corporation, right?

But here's the rub.  As laid out by TechPresident's Wendy Grossman, the biggest complaints are that there is no transparency about what is being blocked, it's extremely difficult to get an innocent site unblocked, and that the filters can be easily bypassed by determined individuals anyway.  The patchwork of different ISPs using different filtering methods has made it "almost impossible for the owner of a small online business to find out if it's being erroneously blocked and by whom - and no ISP seems to have a clear mechanism for redress".

Furthermore, the "blunt-instrument approach" to categories can lead to major problems.  For example, very legitimate websites have been blocked including child abuse hotlines, suicide prevention sites, and even many police websites - linked in the broad categorization of the filters to "violence".  This is reminiscent of problems filters have raised in U.S. schools and libraries where, for example, information-based websites about breast cancer were categorized by algorithms as being linked to pornography.

Clearly this is a problem and a far too common consequence resulting from the very noble goal of providing parents with filtering options for their children.  However, the best strategy for providing parents with filtering choices ought to be based exactly on that - more choices.  Richard Clayton is right that the best path forward lies in making it easier for people to install good user-controllable filtering tools on their own machines rather than having them controlled at the ISPs end.  Not everybody in a household has the same needs and requirements, so putting the decision-making capability in hands of users, allowing for more customization and reviewable analysis, ought to help ensure that filtering does not become the first step in a slippery-slope towards censorship.

And for goodness sake, let's have a little transparency, please.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Will Snapchat Ever Be a Useful Professional Tool?

Snapchat is in that category of seemingly bizarre social media products that pundits mock and that causes laymen to scratch their heads - yet its use is so widespread that it recently rejected a $3 billion purchase offer from Facebook and can now lay claim to as many as 350 million snaps in a day.  For the uninitiated, it's a photo-sharing service where all images are set to self-destruct after 10 seconds.

But is Snapchat destined to be used almost exclusively by teenagers?  Or does it have a future as a valuable tool for professionals?

That's the question raised by K-Street Cafe's Norah Heintz.  In response to high-flying claims made by Pinger CEO Greg Woock that "erasable" social communication represents the future of the medium, she argues that Snapchat will never be able to compete with Facebook and Twitter because "it's far too private.  Sharing information about oneself is intrinsically rewarding, and I would go so far to say that if the personal information shared is programmed to disappear in seconds, it's fundamentally less satisfying to share".

However, what Heintz may be underestimating is the significant chilling effect caused by, what the New York Times' Nick Bilton has dubbed, "the anxiety of permanence".  Many individuals who have online social-networking accounts do not actively engage or post on them for fear of infinite archiving.  If you extend that logic then the possibility of "erasable" social communication may actually increase the number of active users participating in online social networks and/or significantly alter the types of communications people are willing to share.

For better or worse.  While clearly that principle would mean trouble in terms of the behavior of teenagers, it also holds intriguing potential in terms of professionals in a collaborative business environment.

What Snapchat has revealed is that there clearly is an undeniable market for erasable social media.  And my guess is that that market isn't confined to America's high schools.


Thursday, January 09, 2014

"Commotion" and Protecting Privacy Through Mesh Networks...

With last fall's revelations about widespread N.S.A. surveillance, a market has clearly emerged for enhanced-privacy software tools.  In a USA Today poll, 54% of Americans said they wanted more privacy even at the expense of some government security.  Now, the race is on to meet that demand.

While websites like Google and Facebook, and cellular companies like Verizon and AT&T, all try their damnedest to convince their users that their privacy is being protected, their respective measures only go so far - and certainly haven't protected against the type of surveillance engaged in by the N.S.A.  The real problem is with the telecommunications infrastructure.  Even if two people are exchanging a message while standing right next to each other, that message is still routed through a small handful of "chokepoints" - like a broadcast tower operated by Verizon, or a network hub owned by your ISP - and those are where the N.S.A. targeted its surveillance activities.

With a centralized backbone infrastructure being the problem, more people have come to realize that the only way to strengthen their privacy is by circumventing such corporate-controlled infrastructure in the first place.  To this end, the New America Foundation has released the Commotion Wireless Internet Project, a free and open source software toolkit to enable people to create decentralized ad-hoc mesh networks relatively quickly and easily.  These mesh networks directly connect one device to another - whether cell phones or laptops, etc. - thereby creating an intranet-like network on a local level where the devices themselves form the infrastructural backbone.  In other words, returning to the above example, if two people try to exchange a message while standing right next to each other, Commotion would send the message directly from one person's device to the other's, bypassing the traditional chokepoints.

Mesh networks are not a new technology, but with the recent shifting of public opinion on the privacy issue, virtually any software that acts as an Internet privacy, security, or circumvention tool is sure to get new (or renewed) attention.  The demand is there, and in the developer community, the race is on.