July 3, 2014

Net Threats

The Gurus Speak

Some of the most prominent and respected technology experts and analysts made far-ranging statements, encompassing many points. Their answers:

Things will get better, rather than worse

Vint Cerf, Google vice president and co-inventor of the Internet protocol, represented many people’s views when he optimistically predicted, “Social norms will change to deal with potential harms in online social interactions … The Internet will become far more accessible than it is today—governments and corporations are finally figuring out how important adaptability is. AI [Artificial Intelligence] and natural language processing may well make the Internet far more useful than it is today.”

A vortex of innovation and a commons-based economy could be created

Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, wrote, “I’m going to be an idealist here and suggest that someone leads a charge to tear down the stupid, overweening intellectual property regime in place now and replaces it with something much more shareable—an ever-improving version of the Commons. Media companies, content providers, some inventors and others will try to stop this trend, but the forces behind sharing will win. I expect we will begin to figure out how to reward creative people for sharing their creations freely. This will create a vortex of innovation that powers society out of difficult spots and into a commons-based economy. Consumer capitalism will tumble. In its place we’ll figure out how to share the value we create, while improving the many Commons that we depend on. There are plenty of threats in the way of this outcome, yet I’m optimistic that we’ll sort out how to mind the Commons, much as we used to a few thousand years ago.”

‘Government poses the greatest threat to the Net’s freedoms’

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, shared his in-depth point of view, writing, “Government poses the greatest threat to the Net’s freedoms. Many governments, including Western regimes, threaten to control some part of Internet communication. Obviously, China, Iran, and other authoritarian states wish to control speech there. But Canada and Australia have threatened to filter all Internet content to get to child porn. Once one government is given the means and authority to filter communication, information, and content for one reason, then any government can do so for any reason. So we must protect the open architecture of the Net and assure that no government can claim sovereignty over it. At the same time, of course, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom through their NSA and GCHQ have trampled the public’s trust in the security and privacy of net communications, bringing still untold damage to the cloud economy and opening the door for other governments—including tyrannies—to claim their right to govern the net. I don’t know which force—censorship or spying—will lead to greater degradation of net freedoms. Both come from government. Nonetheless, I still hold hope that technologists and hackers can stay one step ahead of slow government and rob them of their stakes claimed in the net. Thus I also hope that technologists—programmers, mathematicians, statisticians, et al—will begin robust discussion of the ethics that govern their own power and how they will use it for public good. The best realization of the fullest potential of the Internet isn’t a technology question but a human question: When given the opportunity, will we realize the benefits of sharing more information, gathering more knowledge, making more connections among ourselves? So far, we have.”

The Internet must be understood as a fundamentally different paradigm

Bob Frankston, Internet pioneer and technology innovator, responded, “Today’s online ‘access’ is hobbled by a funding model based on an owner taking a vig and denying us the ability to communicate unless we pay a carrier. We must get rid of the concept of telecommunications and understand that the Internet is a fundamentally different paradigm. See more on my opinion at http://rmf.vc/IEEERefactoringCE.”

Education is the key

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, wrote, “The biggest problem will be education. People will need to acquire various cognitive skills to use the Internet to its fullest potential.”

The business model of innovators actually hurts progress and ‘this will not end well’

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), observed, “There is an enormous problem with how people obtain information today and my hope is that it will improve dramatically in the years ahead. Currently, approximately 70% of Internet users in the U.S. and 90% in Europe obtain information by going through the search services of one company. This needs to change. There should be many information sources, more distributed, and with less concentration of control. So, I am hoping for positive change. We need many more small and mid-size firms that are stable and enduring. The current model is to find an innovation with monetizing potential, incorporate, demonstrate proof of concept, sell to an Internet giant, and then walk away. This will not end well.”

The biggest technical challenge is filter failure; algorithms cannot keep up

Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst with the Altimeter Group, responded, “With regard to content, the biggest technical challenge will continue to be filter failure; algorithms today just cannot keep up with the number and type of signals that provisionally predict what a person will want at a certain point in time. There are so many barriers: multiple devices, offline attribution and of course simple human changeability. We will continue to see a push and pull with regard to privacy. People will continue to adapt, but their expectations for control and relevance will also increase. And all this needs to be honed to an even finer point for teenagers and children, since teenagers have access to the most popular social networks. What will help us realize the fullest potential of the Internet? Becoming better students of human emotion, desire and behavior.

Look to fictional accounts like Accelerando and Mother of Storms for likely future scenarios

John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, wrote, “Charlie Stross nailed it in his short story Accelerando. Heck, if corporations are people, then why not AIs? That will so transform the landscape of IP, that it will be impossible to think about it in terms of our current legal system. John Barnes got it right in his book the Mother of Storms, which described the intersection of anonymity, privacy, computer networks and pornography. If you are a parent it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.”

Looking forward to the Age of Collaboration among more than 8 billion people

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker, host of the AOL series The Future Starts Here and founder of The Webby Awards, wrote, “By 2025, every human on the planet will be online. The collision of ideas through the sharing network will lead to explosive innovation and creativity. We are just at the precipice of collaborative tools today. By 2025, we should have around 8.1 billion people online. Just imagine all those billions of people and ideas sharing and collaborating. Please don’t let me get hit by a bus. I want to live to experience this period which people will later call the Age of Collaboration.”

The Internet is not a service users get from phone and cable companies

Doc Searls, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, wrote:

“John Perry Barlow once said, ‘I didn’t start hearing about “content” until the container business felt threatened.’ I’m with him on that. ‘Content” is the wrong focus here. It’s just business jive for stuff that floats subscription and advertising revenue online. Sharing knowledge matters much more. The most serious threat to sharing knowledge—and doing the rest of what the Internet is good for—is a conceptual one: thinking of the Internet as a service we get from phone and cable companies. Or worse, as a way to move ‘content’ moving around.

And if we think the Net is just another ‘medium,’ we’re missing its real value as a simple and cost-free way to connect everybody and everything. This is what we meant in The Cluetrain Manifesto when we said ‘markets are conversations.’ Conversations are also not media. They are the main way humans connect with each other and share knowledge. The Internet extends that ability to a degree without precedent in human history. There is no telling how profound a change—hopefully for the better—this will brings to our species and the world we live in.

What steps are necessary to block changes that would limit people’s optimal future capabilities in using the Internet? We need to understand the Internet as what it really is: a way to connect anyone and anything to anyone and anything else, with little if any regard for the means between the ends.

What Paul Baran described as a ‘distributed’ network in 1964, and he and other geeks built out, is a heterarchy, not a hierarchy. It was not designed for billing, or for managing scarcities. Instead it was designed to connect anything to anything, and to put all the smarts in the nodes of the network, rather than in intermediaries. Its design obeys protocols, which are manners among machines and software. Those manners are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them. (Linux and other free and open software code bases are also like that, which is why they provide ideal building material for the Net and what runs on it.)

But intermediaries called ISPs—mostly phone and cable companies—bill us for access to the Net, and those monthly bills define the Net for us in the absence of a more compelling definition. For providing that definition, geeks have done an awful job. So have academics and regulators.

Nobody has yet made clear that the Internet is a rising tide that lifts all boats, producing many trillions of dollars in positive economic externalities—and that it can do so because it has no interest in making money for its owner.

The Net didn’t grow over the dead bodies of phone and cable companies, but over their live ones. Those companies are just lucky that the Net used their pipes. But they have also been very smart about protecting their old businesses while turning their new one—Internet access—into something they can bill in the manner of their old businesses. Hence ‘plans’ for monthly chunks of mobile data for which the first cost is approximately zero. (Operating costs are real. Ones and zeros are way different, and in many—perhaps most—cases have no real first costs.)

In the U.S., cable and phone companies are also lobbying hard at the federal, state and local levels to push through laws that prevent citizens from using local governments and other entities (e.g. local nonprofits and utilities) to offer what carriers can’t or won’t: fully capable Internet service. These laws are sold to legislators as ways to keep government from competing with business, but in fact only protect incumbent monopolies.

What the carriers actually want—badly—is to move television to the Net, and to define the Net in TV terms: as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable. For this they’ll run two-sided markets: on the supply side doing deals with “content providers” such as Hollywood and big publishers, and on the demand side by intermediating the sale of that content.

This by far is the most serious threat to sharing information on the Net, because it undermines and sidelines the Net’s heterogeneous and distributed system for supporting everybody and everything, and biases the whole thing to favor a few vertically-integrated ‘content’ industries.

The good news is that there are a few exceptions to the rule of cable/telephony duopoly, such as Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Wilson, NC, which are attracting businesses and citizens old and new to the shores of the real Internet: the one with virtually unlimited speeds in all directions, and few if any restrictions on what anybody can do with the bandwidth. There we will see the Internet’s tide lift all boats, and not just those of telephony and television.

The end state we will reach is what Bob Frankston calls ‘ambient connectivity.’ We might have to wait until after 2025, but we will get it.”

There will be continued resistance from ‘the status quo people’

Marcus Cake, a network society content architect and strategist with WisdomNetworks.im, wrote:

“There will be continued resistance from the status quo people and organizations that have derived power and profit from centralised structures. The people in influential positions may be unwilling to innovate, unable to recognise the possibilities or unwilling to relinquish positions of influence. History suggests that collapse, crisis, or revolution is required before change.

A second challenge is governments’ responses to legislate the ‘Information Age’ to preserve employment, influence, sovereignty or other areas they see as a concern. Hierarchies were a necessity in the last economic development stage. We needed them to scale up in all communities to organise people to achieve outcomes for economy/society and mobilise capital to invest in channels and infrastructure. The hierarchy was necessary.

It was not our natural state to seek dominance. We remain under the false assumption that hierarchies are the only way to organise. We tolerate the failures of hierarchies. With the advent of the Internet, we can now organise a different way: a shift from telecommunications (information distributed by proprietary channels between hierarchies) to telewisdom (exchange of wisdom between individuals). This is a return to hunters and gatherers—small groups pursuing very specific outcomes and probably a leader. Mega hierarchies (in any community) are at the end of their useful life. Every aspect of society and the dominant hierarchy within each of them now demonstrates that it is more concerned by hierarchies’ survival or process, rather than satisfying broader community objectives. This is true of financial markets, government, education and all the major communities. The influence of a few has had a detrimental effect on community stability and achieving community outcomes. Hierarchies will resist the shift from the Information Age to the Network Society. The next stage of development will crowd-create the Network Society, with distributed contribution and distributed structures. Leadership will be dynamic, rather than entrenched.

Transparency will ensure the ‘leader’ always focuses on community outcomes (or is simply replaced in real-time). We will move to distributed leadership and distributed structures within community. People will only need the networks to realize their person potential and contribute to the potential of society. People have been trained to link things into books and share them by Facebook. Wisdom networks do the same thing for every other part of society. They simply need to be deployed and made available. People will know what to do with them. Wisdom networks are just a more comprehensive telephone call between people.”

‘The challenges are preventing the Internet from turning into just a corporate entertainment-delivery system’

Seth Finkelstein, a programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner, said:

“Way back in 1996, when the Internet was just starting to come into general use, I literally talked myself hoarse at a conference trying to make people aware of censorware issues. Now that’s well-trod ground, with everything from widespread network censorware, to the iconic Great Firewall Of China. That’s the cultural and politics side.

The business side is copyright. Though the general copyright conflict was well-known from the start, the money involved in recent years has simply been staggering. The lawsuit against YouTube involved billion-dollar damage claims. And that’s just one battle of the copyright war.

A point I’ve tried to make over the years is that censorware is about control. People cannot be allowed privacy and anonymity if they are to be continually monitored by authorities to make sure they aren’t reading forbidden content (this applies whether that prohibition is sexual, political, or commercial).

One of the strangest unintended consequences of the Snowden NSA revelations might be boosting the use of encryption and privacy-protective servers, which make such controls much more difficult. There’s nothing that restricts protection from NSA spying to only protection from NSA spying (i.e. all other spying is hindered). It’s similar to how the strong cryptographic protection necessary for Internet financial transactions eventually trumped all the law-enforcement arguments for limiting the public use of cryptography. That is, law-enforcement wanted weak protections so that communications could be easily monitored, but this meant financial data could also be easily stolen.

Having the legal ability to protect financial data from theft in transit eventually protected all communications. Similarly, hardening communications against NSA snooping also protects against all other snooping. The opportunities and challenges that lie ahead are linked.

Speaking only about the developed Western world, since I don’t have experience with the innovations in developing nations, Internet speed and adoption is being heavily driven by entertainment. First it was music, now video. Netflix and YouTube are supposedly responsible for an amazing percentage of total bandwidth. The opportunities are everything swimming along in the wake of those whales (or sharks).

The challenges are preventing the Internet from turning into just a corporate entertainment-delivery system. It’s a bit frightening to consider that perhaps an open Internet only continues to exist because some enormous corporations dealing in content are fighting with other enormous corporations dealing in bandwidth—the former being afraid the latter will use any constriction to, as Microsoft once infamously sought to do to Netscape, ‘cut off their air supply’ (this fight is called ‘Net neutrality’).”

Contradictory intentions: The desire to access and share vs. the desire to track and verify

Barry Chudakov, principal at Sertain Research, observed:

“As everyone becomes connected to get and share content online, the need for security protocols rises exponentially. At present it appears that people want fewer hindrances to get and share online content, but the result of this, as Bruce Schneier writes, is that the Internet becomes a ‘surveillance state.’

To limit people’s optimal future capabilities in using the Internet pits contradictory intentions against each other: the desire to access and share vs. the desire to track and verify. I believe humanity’s essential social nature is stronger; we will opt for communication and sharing and find reasonable, secure ways to verify online identities. But behind this collective desire are powerful corporate and government forces that want to control access and online experience.

“From restrictive proprietary platform ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook to government censorship and rogue cyber-attacks, we will face regular threats from those who want to stifle innovation and seek to disrupt or balkanize the Web. These threats will rise and fall like tides and will continue for the foreseeable future. Our biggest challenge will be vigilance: seeing what is happening as it occurs and responding with intelligent and meaningful counter-measures.

The most serious threat to accessing and sharing content on the Internet is the notion that this should happen without conflict and tension; keeping the tension alive is healthy. Most of the draconian measures to limit freedom on the Internet happen because some party wants to control the conversation and stifle dissent or controversy. We are better served to embrace conflict and disagreement, knowing that any attempt to stifle them is counter-productive to a free and open Internet.”

Market-control mechanisms will go away—slowly—and people will benefit

Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and longtime leader with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, responded:

“You are basically asking if the war between content providers and content consumers will get worse from the standpoint of the consumer. I don’t think so. The role of content provider intermediaries is in terminal decline, a fate suffered in other industries earlier. In some Adam and Eve model of authorship, every author is seamlessly connected to and compensated by every consumer.

Being crude about it, this is a transaction environment and needs lots of proxies exercised—quality control, accurate marketing and distribution, preservation and curatorship, and so on. The Net has been and will continue to affect all the proxy holders. In general, the intermediaries have been harvesting too much economic reward through market control mechanisms. Those will go away—slowly—and consumers will benefit.

God knows what will happen to the poor authors. John Perry Barlow says ‘information wants to be free,’ which pursued to the ultimate, pauperizes the authors and diminishes society thereby. There has been recent active discussion of this question on the ICANN former director list. The current geopolitical changes affecting Internet governance have raised some first principles questions. E.g., what should the future of human society be and what should ICANN and other Internet developers/providers/oversight bodies do to contribute to that future.

One very short answer to that very long question goes as follows: 1) the ‘network’ effect of expanding Internet access is very desirable and should be aggressively promoted; 2) the range of potentially valuable applications on the Net is virtually unlimited, and economic incentives should be provided for investment in such applications; 3) continued Internet openness is essential; protecting the Net from pathological exploitation of its openness should receive a high priority; 4) nation-state abuse of the Net already is in evidence and steps should be taken to limit such state behavior.”

Innovation and open content sharing will be enhanced as users defect from old telecommunications monopolies

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research, said, “The continued economic mess of the post-normal will be accelerated by the ephemeralization of work and the mounting costs of countering global warming, and governments will have too much to deal with to effectively slow the Internet’s oozing into every corner of every part of the economy. The cost pressure will be too great to slow anything. The stalling of the telephone and cable monopolies on high-speed broadband and cellular will lead to fast defection to services offered by Amazon and Google (and a few others), who will buy up or build around the telecommunications companies.”

‘Television provides a cautionary tale’

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz. founders of the online community Awakening Technology, based in Portland, Oregon, wrote:

“In a 1958 speech, the late Edward R. Murrow said: ‘This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.’

The Internet was commercialized in 1995, opening the floodgates to e-commerce, advertising, scams, identity theft and similar crimes, pay-for-play applications, pornography and much more. According to Wikipedia, some 80 to 85% of all the e-mail on the Internet is spam, and Incapsula says that in 2013, less than 40% of Internet activity was conducted by humans. Some 30% of Internet bandwidth goes to pornography, and according to the Huffington Post in 2013, porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

All of this makes it more difficult for people to get and share content online, and without social policy and technology changes, it’s likely to get worse by 2025. Unless people rise up nonviolently to take charge of their local systems and demand public technology and governance oversight and universal, affordable access to the Internet as a whole, humankind will remain captive to the likes of corporations, spammers, hackers, and online criminals. What would it take to re-envision our use of the Internet by 2025 to fulfill the dreams of its early creators and pioneers? Television provides a cautionary tale.”