Nov 292012

Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:

He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.


Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).

May 262012

Does search undermine property?  I don’t mean in the sense that some are arguing that Google subverts copyright to its own benefit.  Paul, for example, suggests that:

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world’s default collecting society – collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

I mean, rather, in the sense that search – the physiological process, impulse and reward which makes up and motivates that short-term desire to get an immediate answer – is actually destroying our ability to even care about where these gobbets of information come from.  If I’m right, it’s that not caring any more which is changing the rules – rather than Google’s latterly evil mission.

It’s not copyright infringement itself which is dismantling authors’ abilities to make a living out of their work but – at least in part – this “rising to the top” fallacy which search promotes that everything worth our attention can be found in a page of ten hyperlinks (often not even fully clicked upon) – and nothing worth our attention will be missed.  In the essence of this fallacy we have a massive psychological change in readers’ behaviours.  And it is that change which has prepared the ground and made it possible for the sadness of something for nothing.

There are those who would have us believe that the real enemies out there are those who promote a free and open web above all other considerations.  If it were only so easy to pin down.  If the enemy were as described it would be simple to excise them from the game.  The truth of the matter is that it is ourselves – those of us who consume, publish, write and exchange information – who are entirely to blame for allowing Google to foist the search fallacy on us.  Instead of writing for audiences of proper readers, we are shortening and slicing up our narratives to satisfy those who refuse to read more than three hundred words at a throw.

Or maybe just 140 characters.

We aren’t really pirates gratuitously searching to find something for nothing.  We are, instead, Pavlovian creatures looking for our next slavering short-term fix.  That is what search has turned us into.  Mental drug addicts who care only for what the intermediaries can bring them.

In a world which could’ve been one of liberated producer-consumers, we have fallen in love with our pushers.

In a sense, the 20th century mafias which built empires on the back of drug dependency have been mimicked in the 21st century by companies which give short shrift to content.  Whether search engines like Google, online media like Huffington Post or social websites like Facebook and Twitter, short and multi-authored is good whilst long and individually authored is bad.

Who’d have thought that the epitome of 21st century capitalism would be the very first destroyers of a true, coherent and properly woven individualism?  Who’d have thought that search would destroy authorship?

It’s not capitalism which has won the Cold War but a content Stalinism in its most evil unremunerated form.  And it’s not cocaine which is flooding our dreams any more – but words, stats and images which distract and headline our virtual streets.

Apr 272012

Lawrence Lessig famously stated that “code is law”:

The primary idea, as expressed in the title, is the notion that computer code (or “West Coast Code”, referring to Silicon Valley) may regulate conduct in much the same way that legal code (or “East Coast Code”, referring to Washington, D.C.) does.[2] More generally, Lessig argues that there are actually four major regulators — Law, Norms, Market, Architecture — each of which has a profound impact on society and whose implications must be considered.

In a sense, then, the pincer movement is utterly complete.  Whilst a parliament of lawyers is taken over by a posse of businesspeople, exerting undue influence over our democracy, from the other side – the side of coders and software architects everywhere (and by everywhere I mean Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter; as well as, even, I have to say, open source projects such as Mozilla, LibreOffice and WordPress itself) – our behaviours, our attitudes, what we can do or not do with our possessions, what we can say, how we say it, the kinds of things that strike at the very heart of our economies and define what we are as human beings … all the above is equally structured by people who run transnational behemoths for the benefit of certain ways of seeing or doing.

Now I’m not, for the moment, passing judgement on those mindsets in question.  All I’m saying is that to date our society – our democracy – has been based on the rule of law as defined by lawyers.  Our parliaments are stuffed full of ex- or practising lawyers; our politicos all speaking with the care and general prevision of those who might avoid a future trap cleverly set by an ever-watchful media class.

But if what Lessig has sustained for quite a while now is in any way true, the kind of profession which dominates our democracy is entirely the wrong one for our times.  If more law is being made in the online constitutions we now all operate under for our communication, peer-to-peer exchanges, commerce and gaming than is being made in our parliaments, surely we need a parliament stuffed with those who understand the new tools.

Otherwise, we depend on the good faith of people working behind closed corporate doors to create online and connected offline worlds with a sensibility and sensitivity to the needs of a wider democracy.

The current situation is, in fact, as follows: it’s as if we had a civilisation where the more money and wealth you had, the more right you had to tell citizens what to do.

Which surely can’t be the case.

Can it?

The solution then?  As per the title of this post: we need a parliament not of lawyers – or not only of lawyers – but, rather, more importantly, of coders and software engineers.  Only then will we be able to not just track the changes in technology that take place and their impact on our societies but also implement and engage from the very beginning a wider citizenship in democratic debate.

We need a new and parallel parliament – parallel, at least, to start out with – which writes the rules of how we should act and behave through software code itself.  Much as books, as core repositories of information, have developed into films and latterday websites, so the legal code which once ruled our civilisations is giving way to billions of lines of software.

Any legal professional worth his or her virtual salt must understand the implications.

Any political professional who cares about democracy must accept that patching up 19th century code, as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA have tried to do, is simply going about the job to hand in a totally inappropriate way.  We’ve been creating the software tools and their permissions and ways of seeing and doing before typing their rights and responsibilities in the legal parliamentary code of old.  Inevitably, if we choose to act thus we are going to fail miserably.

We are buying the horse blindfold, without examining its mouth before it’s too late.

We need to start at the beginning of the process; not come in way beyond the end of its implementation.

What needs sorting – and opening up to public scrutiny – are the software constitutions themselves.  It’s not open government we need any more but an engagement of end-users – let’s call them virtual voters – before software code is written and implemented; before it impacts on our societies.

It’s not open source code we need to promote (though that, of course, is virtuous) so much as open source process.

Not open government but the kind of open Internet we still have not seen.

A parliament of societally focussed coders, then – able to communicate and liaise with the above-mentioned virtual voters?

Why not?

Apr 182012

For those of you who live in the UK and are affected by its legislation, the Open Rights Group – of which I am a recent member – has just published this briefing page on what the government most likely is planning for our web.

First, because I think such information generally informs people’s wider prejudices about the Internet, here are some stats pulled from the briefing on what people think the web means for children:

Key facts

  • One quarter of UK 9-16 year olds say that they have seen sexual images in the past 12 months, whether online or offline. 11% encountered sexual images online. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • “…overall, most children have not experienced sexual images online and, even of those who have, most say they were not bothered or upset by them”. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 24% of those who said they had seen sexual images online, or 3% of all the children surveyed, claimed they were upset or bothered by something they had seen. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 23 per cent of parents think it likely that their child will experience something that bothers them online in the next six months. (See The Bailey Review, page 36)
  • Ofcom found that in 2010, 26% of parents were very or fairly concerned about the content of websites their children were visiting. (UK Children’s Media Literacy, Ofcom, 2011, p. 66)

A pretty damning set of stats I might say – if, that is, sexual imagery is a particular issue for you in relation to how our kids are supposedly using the web.  Two things here: first, the real world presents its own challenges on this matter – the sexual imagery which is present in the music industry, for example, can often go beyond a similar pale and make us wonder if everything is as it should be; and second, the suspicion will always exist that the above – whilst covering important and key matters for our younger citizens – will be used and even exploited by governments and big business to make access to the Internet more convenient for their rather more closed interests.

On the wider issues of Internet freedom and innovation, then, here we have a couple of paragraphs on what ORG judges the government’s approach might lead to:

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, noted (page 8) last year that restrictions on access to information can have a ““chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Without adequate safeguards, handing powers over what information people can access, or over the visibility of certain kinds of information, inevitably opens the door to censorship, either through mistakes or abuse.

Overall, we are concerned that powers that DCMS will propose in the forthcoming Green Paper to restrict access to information are being given away too cheaply. The result is a suite of proposals that will likely damage the Internet as a tool for the promotion of freedom of expression and innovation through fair and open markets.

Something I’d be inclined to agree with one hundred percent.

Meanwhile, and as a footnote to what is now an ongoing debate, I’d just like to underline that the reason I think we have the web we have is because, quite simply, we don’t have the democracy we deserve.  Some examples to follow, then, so you can see what I mean:

  1. If it’s too easy to access sex online, if the demand in itself exists, in part it’s because first-time sexual “experiences” offline – the music industry stuff I mention above, for example – is as teasingly bent out of shape as it could be.  Get it right in an offline context, with proper and sensitive education, and you might find the subject came out of the underground the web currently seems to so delight in positioning it.
  2. If it’s too easy to access illegal music online, it’s because right at the beginning of digital music the industry itself failed to move with the needs of the market – they felt that they could continue to run their traditionally massive overheads and generate waste on an industrial scale just as generations already did previously.
  3. If it’s too easy to access news and journalistic endeavour online, and we discover we can’t fund the mainstream media we supposedly deserve, it’s because offline for far too long it’s been a privileged medium where those in the know often tend to protect those who keep them in the know.  We’ve simply lost interest in listening to the clever bods who play with our interests – far better a Web 2.0 experience where we speak to our peers and can at least suss out the fakes before they get too big and important.
  4. If it’s too easy to access general knowledge in the form of digital encyclopaedias, it’s because Microsoft – of all companies – failed to see the virtues of getting users truly involved and crowdsourcing the future generations of content.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the society we should be able to fashion – a modern, democratic and freely discursive 21st century ecosystem of connected voters and legitimate business interests – just simply isn’t getting there at all.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the real-world alternative is so damningly corrupt and unfree.

And if they’re now trying to take away from us the web we’ve achieved to date, it’s precisely because they understand that – in truth – for every excess that now takes place on the Internet, a man or woman or corporation has taken the wrong path in offline endeavour.

Why do we have the web we have?  Because those of you who run the real world have made such a mess of what could’ve been a real journey of discovery!  The web we have isn’t in its natural state – it’s reacting violently as a corrective to a sequence of violences committed by those who prefer to impose, on this Planet Earth, their anti-democratic ways of doing.

That, my dear friends, is why we have the web we have.  And in order to properly sort it, we first need to properly sort the real world which has caused it.

Not patch, flailingly and foolishly, the technology that simply reflects our own grubby visages.

For that really would be a churlish – as well as childish – act of uncommon vengeance.

Apr 172012

They’re saying this story shows how online media has come of age.  I can see that Huffington Post clearly deserves this Pulitzer – and not just for the series it was commended for.  But, whilst deserved, I wonder if the recognition itself is welcome.

HuffPost now belongs to AOL – it changed hands last year for millions of dollars.  Other media organisations such as the New York Times or the British Guardian, adapting reasonably fleet-of-footedly to the new journalistic frames, now produce similarly effective online presences with just as much interactivity and just as much social media impact.

Since they also have real printing-presses and other offline overheads, they probably lose much more money than HuffPost – but even so, the final impact on readers cannot be all that different.

So what does online media’s garnering of prizes like the Pulitzer mean for the rest of us?  I think it means we are probably going to lose something important, as the traditional model of legally defensible communication reasserts itself by taking over from the over-the-garden-fence discourse which we as users have, to date, thought we were all engaging in.

We lose, in effect, as does our democracy too, the deniable-outrider advantages of bringing up through that bubbling virtual cauldron of rumour and speculation realities which traditional media may refuse to contemplate airing.  In the absence of other written guarantees around freedom of speech in the UK, social networks’ recent grey areas of rights and responsibilities were perhaps our only saving graces: take these away as all our online media strive to become respectably recognised and we might find we are left with very little true freedom of speech.

It may not be fashionable for people to suggest that what makes online media so fascinating is precisely its inability to get things absolutely right – but, for me anyhow, its biggest strength lies precisely in that: in stumbling across far bigger truths by getting some of them dramatically wrong.

If we lose the liberties which over-the-garden-fence discourses have, of late, afforded so many of us, we will gradually revert to a mode of communication so dependent on platoons of legal bodies, advice and dark corridors of injunctions that the “newness” online media initially brought with it will eventually become nothing more than a historical blip on the horizon.

The Pulitzer path will lead us back to traditional business models, mark my words.  And the Rupert Murdochs of this world will eventually have their way.

Unashamed ambiguity and deniable outridership – now these should be our true cause and standard.

As well as our markers in the sand.

Apr 162012

Sergey Brin, of Google fame, argues the following:

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

There are other things in this interview which I do agree wholeheartedly with.  This for example:

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet […].

To that list, in fact, we might care one day to add the UK.

Especially in the light of other news from yesterday which indicates that the Russians may be planning to embrace similar controls on their Internet in the future.

But when Brin talks about the carve-up of the free and open Internet, I am inclined to want to take the position that Google itself is not entirely without blame.  Brin is clear that some of the forces ranged against his – and our – baby include the following:

[…] the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Whilst I agree that the entertainment industry wishes to have its cake and eat it – for I might argue that if an existing structure isn’t appropriate for your distribution needs, why take the decision to distribute on it in the first place? – the walled gardens of Facebook in particular are surely a reaction to Google’s monopolistic dominance of the aforementioned freedoms it avows it is in favour of.  As I wrote some time ago on the subject of pernicious paywalls, the worldwide web in its native form is a truly beautiful thing:

To date, the Internet can be characterised and defined by two things: firstly, it has been more a space of discourse, more a flat hierarchy of multiple communication impulses, than a controlled business channel of traditional producer-consumer relationships.  Anatomically speaking, more like a global brain with its extensive network of redundant neurones sparking off each other than an intestinal system which helps process a beginning, a middle and an end.

Secondly, its fundamental tool – the hyperlink – has changed how we read information quite profoundly: the promiscuity of search has taken over from the power of a previously framed narrative.  Through that promiscuity, we look for answers to questions which tumble out of thoughts we must – over and over again – addictively pursue.  Neither is that beginning, middle and end predestined any longer – nor, often, repeatable.  The uniqueness of the narrative experience that each user of hyperlinks brings to the often very private storytelling they engage in as they surf the Web keeps millions of people obsessively tied to their PCs at the end of a multitude of long working days.

These two defining concepts – space and linkage – are what have made the Internet the force that it is today.  And for the vast majority of publishers who currently connect to the Web, this Internet is exactly the Internet they need.  They’re not looking for a mass-market reach to publish their content; instead, they have friends, colleagues and interest groups who actually choose to read what they are publishing, and do so night after night without prompting – quite without the seduction of competitions, bingo, free CDs or tickets to the cinema.

Google, however, has built an advertising empire on a set of hidden search algorithms which it allows to be massaged quite blatantly.  From sponsored ads which sit at the very top of its search results to websites and their URLs which creep up the rankings via carefully lodged supporting links from key sites across the web, the industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) is to Google what, in its heyday, the concept of third-party ecosystem was to Microsoft.  It sells the basic idea and principle to eager paying customers; it supports the legitimacy of the search model in question; and, finally, it helps keep other players firmly out of the market – essentially in order that Google, quite paradoxically, might convince a whole planet that when it monopolises the open Internet it is actually making all of us as free as could be.

No mention, for example, of all the data it has collected on us in order that its model of a “free” Internet might be better monetised on behalf of its shareholders.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I like Apple’s business model either.  Nor is Facebook quite what I thought it might be even a couple of years ago.  But I do get the impression that whilst Google’s landgrab did take place on a relatively open Internet, its ways and methods since then have only served to create a simulacrum of openness – a simulacrum where in reality those in power can move their favourite souls up and down the popularity stakes almost at will.

That original dream of Google’s, to make useful information available to anyone, has been gamed, distorted and messed around with – even, I might suggest, and quite arguably, by the company itself.

On such an open Internet, who wouldn’t want to create parallel universes?

Facebook and Apple aren’t the reason we’ve lost that dream.

Facebook and Apple are simply the symptom of Google’s greed.

Apr 152012

With apologies to those of you of a rather more delicate disposition, here are some swear words.

In Spanish, “hijo de puta” literally means “son of a whore”.  I suppose it can also very loosely translate as “cunt”.  Meanwhile, “de puta madre” literally means “of a whore-mother”.  I suppose it can also very loosely translate as “the very best thing in the world”.

Such are the complexities of language.

I’m not sure we’re really aware of the implications of such complexities.

Sunny reports today on this rather unhappy case which appears to involve a tweeter being convicted of swearing on Twitter:

A blogger and tweeter – Olly Cromwell – was found guilty on Friday, 13th April, simply for swearing at a Bexley, London, councillor in a Twitter message.

The background to this case does, however, seem a little more complex than this (to be fair to Sunny he does then go on to explain some of the salient ins and outs of it), and there is even – at least for me – a whiff of potential super-injunction in the air.  Is, for example, everything as it should be in the council which appears to be involved at least tangentially?  Nor am I entirely sure whether posting names and addresses of sitting councillors should be counted as an offence – when I was a parish councillor, I’m pretty sure my address and even telephone number were listed on the parish council’s website and other documentation.  Clearly material in the public domain.

What might conceivably be considered a potential offence is, however, encouraging the committing of violence against an individual after posting details of where they live.

I’m not saying that’s what happened here – I’m just trying to understand what appears to be a very murky situation.

Sunny goes on to indicate that the prosecution has stated the following:

The prosecution alleged he called a senior Bexley councillor a ‘cunt’ and are seeking a custodial sentence of 45 days for each letter of the word.

Now without knowing the implications of the law behind the above-mentioned situation, this does seem a manifestly absurd circumstance.  With such an argument, we could end up playing a Kafka-like game of legal Scrabble.  If, for example, Cromwell had used the word “cock”, would the prosecution have asked for an extra few days for the letter “k”?  Or if the word “bastard” had been used instead, could we have seen him banged up for seven letters and two syllables?

Paul leaves a comment at the foot of Sunny’s piece which attempts to provide some context to the whole case.  I reproduce it here in full:

a) What has this got to do with Bexley Council? I can’t immediately see any suggestion that the council, as an entity, has had anything to do with this? It may simply be a result of a complaint either by the cllr or by a third party.

b) He can’t have been charged on Friday if there was a pre-trial hearing in December. The charge must have been laid previously in order for a PTH to take place

c) Prosecutions don’t ‘seek’ particular sentence values in British courts. Their jobs is simply to charge and prove guilt in the case of a not guilty plea (except in the fairly rare occurence of a Newton hearing, where guilt is already established but there is then a process to argue out the seriousness of the offence, and even then the prosecution wouldn’t normally argue for a specific level of sentence). It is for the judiciary/magistracy to apply within the parameters of the law, and with a view to sentecing guidelines. I assume (for now) that the 6 months figure is simply the maximum for the sec 127 charge in question. Sentences are rarely the maximum, which are often very high relative to the charge in order to provide flexibility.

The whole thing looks ridiculous but there are some bits in this and the linked reports that don’t hang together.

It certainly does seem strange.  I’m inclined right now not to come down either on one side or the other, but simply to wonder whether what I wrote recently about Twitter’s own business model isn’t directly responsible in some important way for the increasing numbers of problems we’re having with what we say supposedly “ephemerally” on its network:

[…] It seems to me that the big issue with Twitter and the law lies precisely in a question of framing.  And the framing has been done by agencies quite outside the common populace.  So whilst we suffer the consequences of the confusion thus engendered, we really are not to blame for overstepping the multitude of marks.

Twitter, Facebook and all the rest set up their stalls with the idea that the casual throwaway over-the-garden-fence kind of conversation could be replicated online with virtual tools.  Most of us thought, when we ventured onto such terrain, that we would have the freedom to extend our local village globally.  The rules would remain the same – the right to irreverent, racist, sexist and beyond-the-pale remarks would continue to be a par for the course.

What we didn’t realise at all was that our ephemeral occurrences were actually part of Twitter and Facebook’s business models.  There was absolutely no intention for the ephemeral to be treated as such.

And as I then went on to underline:

[…] Twitter and Facebook are actually as resilient and permanent as an interrogation and signed interview sheet at your local police station.

Which does make me think that sooner or later a legal defence might be mounted with the above-described business model as an obvious explanation for, as well as a direct cause of, very many of the ills that are afflicting social network users across the world.

Even, that is to say, in allegedly democratic countries.

I also am minded to ask the following question: if I used the Spanish word “gilipollas” – probably a closer and better translation of the English word “cunt” – to describe on a mainly English-language Twitter stream the characteristics of an English-speaking person I summarily disapproved of, and in that clearly unephemeral way we must now get accustomed to, would the British legal profession eventually consider me guilty of some crime?  And would they strive to give me 45 days for each letter of the word in question?

If the answer to both questions was – eventually – a yes in each case, this would surely be the first time in the history of the world where verbosity was punished by a profession hardly noted for its brevity, and where the many wonders of a creative bilingualism were punished for their literary ingenuity.

On a day Google’s Sergey Brin accuses Facebook of carving up the open Internet, it would be fascinating – if also terrifying – to conclude that the British legal profession actually wants to punish us in terms of the register of language we use.

For here’s another thought to be going away with: just imagine if Cromwell had described the councillor in question as being a “wally” or a “moron” – or simply, quite straightforwardly, a “liar”.  Would any or all of those have passed muster where “cunt” clearly didn’t?  Or are we getting to the point where even such mildly unparliamentary language will also end up being policed on social networks?

As if there weren’t enough criminals already allegedly perambulating through the ether, they’re now looking to criminalise a whole new generation of techno-savvy communicators.

First, they pop the sweet in your mouth; then, they take it away.

The way of the world from the origins of the universe perhaps?

And I’m not even sure what’s exactly wrong about all of the above – but something about this social network stuff is beginning to smell extremely bad.

Follow the money, my dear friends.  Follow the money.  Those business models I mentioned … mark my words, that’s where the crux of the matter will finally lie.

Feb 112012

As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.

Jan 302012

I’ve just received this email from – it’s well worth a read as it highlights how large corporations and wealthy interests continue to try and game the free markets and our wider economies in their favour:

Dear friends,

A new global treaty could allow corporations to police everything that we do on the Internet. Last week 3 million of us successfully pushed back the US censorship bills — if we act now, we can get the EU Parliament to bury this new threat to all of us: 

Last week, 3 million of us beat back America’s attack on our Internet! — but there is an even bigger threat out there, and our global movement for freedom online is perfectly poised to kill it for good.

ACTA — a global treaty — could allow corporations to censor the Internet. Negotiated in secret by a small number of rich countries and corporate powers, it would set up a shadowy new anti-counterfeiting body to allow private interests to police everything that we do online and impose massive penalties — even prison sentences — against people they say have harmed their business.

Europe is deciding right now whether to ratify ACTA — and without them, this global attack on Internet freedom will collapse. We know they have opposed ACTA before, but some members of Parliament are wavering — let’s give them the push they need to reject the treaty. Sign the petition — we’ll do a spectacular delivery in Brussels when we reach 500,000 signatures:

It’s outrageous — governments of four-fifths of the world’s people were excluded from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations and unelected bureaucrats have worked closely with corporate lobbyists to craft new rules and a dangerously powerful enforcement regime. ACTA would initially cover the US, EU and 9 other countries, then be rolled out across the world. But if we can get the EU to say no now, the treaty will lose momentum and could stall for good.

The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights, ACTA could also ban lifesaving generic drugs and threaten local farmers’ access to the seeds they need. And, amazingly, the ACTA committee will have carte blanche to change its own rules and sanctions with no democratic scrutiny.

Big corporate interests are pushing hard for this, but the EU Parliament stands in the way. Let’s send a loud call to Parliamentarians to face down the lobbies and stand firm for Internet freedom. Sign now and send to everyone you know:

Last week, we saw the strength of our collective power when millions of us joined forces to stop the US from passing an Internet censorship law that would have struck at the heart of the Internet. We also showed the world how powerful our voices can be. Let’s raise them again to tackle this new threat.

With hope and determination,

Dalia, Alice, Pascal, Emma, Ricken, Maria Paz and the rest of the Avaaz team

More information:

European Parliament member resigns in ACTA protest

If You Thought SOPA Was Bad, Just Wait Until You Meet ACTA

ACTA vs. SOPA: Five Reasons ACTA is Scarier Threat to Internet Freedom

What’s Wrong With ACTA

The secret treaty: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and Its Impact on Access to Medicines

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Jan 182012

Compare and contrast the following two positions.  First, from Rupert Murdoch’s editors at the Times and Sunday Times, giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry:

The editors of the News International-owned Times and Sunday Times have told the Leveson inquiry they were implacably opposed to any form of statutory regulation of newspapers because of the “chilling effect” it may have on the press.

The editor of the Sunday Times even goes so far as to say:

[…] he would have “very serious doubts about some sort of statutory body that’s been set up by parliament” because he thinks further down the line “politicians would be tempted to intervene”.

So statutory regulation, for Mr Murdoch’s editors – and presumably Mr Murdoch himself – is quite out of order.

I agree too.

However, Mr Murdoch – himself – doesn’t seem to entirely agree with himself.  At least, not in a slightly different context.  Witness this story from last year on the subject of his very personal support in favour of far-reaching legislation – SOPA and PIPA – to control what is published, where and how on the worldwide web:

News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch threw his weight behind Congress’ attempt to restrict the Internet, personally lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill Wednesday for two measures that purport to combat piracy.

The implications of SOPA and PIPA – if you’re not entirely aware – are summarised at EFF’s site here:

In addition to going after websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement, a proposal in SOPA will allow the government to target sites that simply provide information that could help users get around the bills’ censorship mechanisms. Such a provision would not only amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint against protected speech, but would severely damage online innovation. And contrary to claims by SOPA’s supporters, this provision—at least what’s been proposed so far—applies to all websites, even those in the U.S.

As First Amendment expert Marvin Ammori points out, “The language is pretty vague, but it appears all these companies must monitor their sites for anti-circumvention so they are not subject to court actions ‘enjoining’ them from continuing to provide ‘such product or service.’” That means social media sites like Facebook or YouTube—basically any site with user generated content—would have to police their own sites, forcing huge liability costs onto countless Internet companies. This is exactly why venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass. Websites would be forced to block anything from a user post about browser add-ons like DeSopa, to a simple list of IP addresses of already-blocked sites.

Perhaps worse, EFF has detailed how this provision would also decimate the open source software community. Anyone who writes or distributes Virtual Private Network, proxy, privacy or anonymization software would be negatively affected. This includes organizations that are funded by the State Department to create circumvention software to help democratic activists get around authoritarian regimes’ online censorship mechanisms. Ironically, SOPA would not only institute the same practices as these regimes, but would essentially outlaw the tools used by activists to circumvent censorship in countries like Iran and China as well.

So.  On the one hand, in Britain, in the context of the printed press, Mr Murdoch is right about state regulation.  Such regulation would inevitably lead, at some time in the future, to governments and individual politicians spreading out from such legislative “beachheads” – as they took lazy intellectual and strategic advantage of the opportunities thus presented.

On the other hand, however, as his adventures in MySpace and other online ventures have indicated, his knowledge and intuitive understanding of the ways of the worldwide web leave much to be desired:

Many questions and jokes about My Space.simple answer – we screwed up in every way possible, learned lots of valuable expensive lessons.

And, unfortunately, the primary lesson he seems to have learned is that whilst the package that is politicians, governments and state regulation is indisputably bad – phone-hacking, Leveson and bizarre print media behaviours notwithstanding – it would seem that he thinks the package that is private businesspeople, content corporations, the Internet and the once again aforementioned thorny state regulation – in the form of massively invasive new laws which give a potentially total control to put the shutters down on freedom of speech everywhere – is actually really rather a jolly good idea.

That is to say, whilst it’s bad to pass laws politicians and governments might be tempted to use for their own benefit in an industry which is dying, it’s fine to pass laws businesspeople and corporations are aiming to use for their own benefit in an industry which is on the point of flourishing like no other.

Talk about pork-barrel politics.  These businesspeople appear to have absolutely no shame whatsoever.

Oct 012011

Paul has some really good overviews of tons of stuff.  When we meet up, which is far too occasionally, for me anyhow, I find his ability to synthesise big ideas and break them down into gobbets I can understand one of the most exhilarating things about his conversation – and, by extension, though less frequently these days than might be the case, via the words he lets slip in his blog Never Trust a Hippy.

This evening, for example, I am struck by this paragraph:

As far as I can see, the Tories are moving ever-closer to a subscription model of the state – one where a higher-rate taxpayer expects a higher level of service, and where a freemium model of public service is advanced. You can almost see all politics as a tug-of-war in which active citizens game the tax and benefits system (I fleshed this out more here a few weeks ago).

And he goes on to conclude (the bold is mine):

To my poor mind, this isn’t an argument or fight that can be ducked. Nor is it one on which we can’t land heavy blows. Watching the way both the US and the EU are floundering at the moment, tracing the lack of historical vitality – governments that don’t believe that they have the legitimacy to act – this isn’t a trivial issue either.

I think Paul is absolutely spot-on in what he says, when he argues we can’t duck the fight.  And I think the reason we can’t goes much further than simply politics.  It may be the case, very shortly, that the most important development of the last ten years – and here I refer to the Internet – will end up looking like a futile and unhappy blip in our sociocultural history: really what I’m saying here is that I suspect the encroaching monetisation of the Internet – via Facebook, Apple, Amazon and its Kindle and a multitude of other splintering impulses – is acting as an undeniable customisation of our shared and common mindscapes which will lead inevitably to the monetisation of many other parallel worlds; worlds which to date have remained analogously free.

That is to say, the importance of this battle to maintain through the Internet a certain liberty of movement of ideas and content is much much bigger than simply guaranteeing a means of communication.  If we lose the marvellous commons which to date this Internet has more or less brought us, we may almost certainly run the risk of losing a whole raft of other realities. 

Is it really too wild, then, to suggest that the progressive monetisation of the Internet might make the Coalition’s plans to – similarly – monetise the Welfare State far more likely?

For just as the Internet has radically changed the way we think nowadays, and online behaviours have influenced what we accept offline, so the monetisation of the Internet may change what – in a much wider context – we feel we have a right to expect.

Thus it is that, in reality, I fear for the Welfare State not because of the Andrew Lansleys and Jonathan Djanoglys of this world.

Rather, I fear for the Welfare State because of the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs.

Aug 172011

Here’s an interesting document – “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, signed in Davos in 1996 – which came my way this afternoon, on the back of a retweet of one of my posts from the nice anonymous souls at FreeTheInternet.  In my post I argue that whilst censorship is bad enough, self-censorship is worse:

And there is no worse censorship than the self-censorship generated through fear of state intervention – a censorship which refuses to take ownership and is often invisible to the outside world.

And I go on to conclude that:

Censorship of ideas is – above all – inefficient. It may also be immoral – but, above all, it leads to corruption and cover-ups. We don’t need any more of those – instead, we need openness and honesty alongside a shared desire to challenge everything.

Including the established order which – sometimes – terrible events manage to make seem so brittle.

Meanwhile, the declaration of independence which I take is essentially FreeTheInternet’s manifesto starts out by stating the following:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

It makes fascinating reading – describing as it does in its very purest form the essence of the wild west web which defines the Internet as a permanent frontier in flux.  In its declamatory style, it reminds me of other powerful political statements – yet in its philosophy I am minded to recall the ecological “twists and turns” of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Pioneers” (you can jump to an analysis of the book here).  For this is a declaration of dearly held values in that finest American tradition of self-help, independence and backwoods’ men and women.

I do wonder if temperamentally I am up to going as far as this declaration would have us go.  But, on the other hand, freedom of speech and free thought are indivisible ideas – in a sense we can easily argue they either stand in their entirety or they fall in their incomplete implementation.

And few governments, it has to be said, truly feel this in their ideological bones.  The only recent example I can think of is that of Norway in the aftermath of the brutal and politically motivated massacre of so many young and clearly politicised thinkers of the human condition.  That anyone in that small nation should wish to continue to support freedom of expression after such an awful event is a sign of their sincerest dedication to truth and intellectual coherence.

One final point.  One of the paragraphs in the declaration – remember it was signed in 1996 – states that:

In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.

And I am fascinated to see that – then – those responsible for these words did not see fit to include the United Kingdom in their roll call of those who would interfere with freedom of expression.

This, incidentally, for those of you who might not remember, was the year before New Labour swept to power on the back of an enormous groundswell of public gratitude and hope – after years of enduring Thatcherite miseries.

And yet I wonder if now, fifteen years later, the authors of this declaration would so readily excuse the UK from that list of virtual offenders.