Untangling

Ambling back towards Waterloo, through the frozen streets of a wintry London, I noticed (via the Twitterverse) that old Guardian chum Aleks Krotoski was lecturing at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Tuesday night. What happy chance! Informed by serendipity, I executed a smartish turn into Portugal Street and then into the LSE East Building. I was a few minutes early, so I caught an impenetrable end session of a lecture about calculus (game theory calculus, if I wasn’t mistaken) and then settled down to a terrific talk from Alex. She was talking about her new book — based on some Guardian and Observer columns — on “Untangling the Web”.

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Alex kicked off by saying that there is a culture of fear about the Internet because people (and especially, in my opinion, politicians) don’t really understand it. I thought this was an interesting observation to make during the week where world governments are squabbling about the control of the Internet at some UN beanfeast in Dubai! I’m sure she’s right, by the way. Everything seems a little scary: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google and Apple are all scary to someone, which crystallised set of thoughts for me and I think I will write something about that in the future. Her central point, at least to me, is that insofar as we understand how power will work in the virtual world (which is not very much at the moment) it is something to do with the role of the inter-mediate in technologies and those technologies have context. Right now, it’s essentially a Northern Californian context.

Aleks talked about the Google search algorithms as an example of how technology isn’t neutral in shaping our views of the world, but it occurred to me that there is an even more fundamental angle on this which links to the Dubai wrangling. When it came to question time I asked her about this and she said that she was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the direction that we might take. I think I might be mildly pessimistic, in that I think it likely that the Internet will fracture into a number of different blocs in the future, but that may be an age related disorder!

Aleks asked (these aren’t her exact words, this is a paraphrase) if we are stuck in a quicksand of me, me, me narcissistic exhibitionism. I certainly am.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Government’s Magic Boxes will get rid of porn

Well, excellent scoop from Channel 4. Apparently, the government has discovered a Magic Box of some description.

Internet and phone firms are preparing to install “black boxes” to monitor UK internet and phone traffic, and decode encrypted messages – including Facebook and GMail messages.

[From ‘Black boxes’ to monitor all internet and phone data – Channel 4 News]

When I say scoop, of course, I’m being sarcastic, since the plans are well-known and several years old.

Home Office officials have told senior figures from the internet and telecommunications industries that the “black box” technology could automatically retain and store raw data from the web before transferring it to a giant central database controlled by the Government.

[From Government black boxes will ‘collect every email’ – Home News – UK – The Independent]

But Channel 4 say that these boxes have some pretty amazing abilities, including that of decrypting all internet traffic. Apparently the government’s Magic Box decrypts everything, throws away the content and then sends the message headers back to the ISP for storage, although why they would bother doing this isn’t clear – why doesn’t the government store them? Anyway, the point is that the government knows what you are looking at. So…

The Prime Minister spoke recently about the possibility that internet services or devices might come with a filter on as their default setting, and said that the government should investigate that option and seek views on it.

[From Ministers consult public on ‘opt in for smut’ plans • The Register]

Why can’t the government do this? Since it knows what you’re looking at, if you’re looking at child pornography, Nazi drug-dealing propaganda or the Labour party manifesto then the Magic Box can simply throw away the traffic. I’m thinking of popping along to the Conservative Technology Forum in a couple of weeks’ time so I’ll ask the question there: if these Magic Boxes do exist, then why doesn’t the government use them to block child pornography? And if they say that they won’t, then I’ll write the Daily Wail headline myself: “Cameron decides to allow child pornography”.

I’ve tried googling to find out how the Magic Boxes are going to decrypt SSL sessions but without success. It could be that one of the big IT suppliers has told the government that it can be done provided several hundred million quid are invested in building custom systems, and that when a billion quid has been wasted on it they will just cancel the project (like the NHS Supercomputer). One implication is obvious though: the government will have to ban VPNs and PGP.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Can’t see the wood for the degrees

There’s been some media debate over the last few days about web blocking, censorship and the like., most of which makes absolutely no sense and does not come from any informed position and does not put forward any practical (or sane) suggestions for how the relationship between mundane and virtual identities should be managed in a modern society. Like almost all political comment on the inter web in particular, the views are confused. Here’s a comment from our Shadow Media Minister.

I really feel at the moment that the web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law.

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

Now, obviously, there was no reason for Helen to pick up much in the way of the technology (or history) during her time reading PPE at Oxford, so I hope I not being mean by saying that she’s got this wrong. The reason why people escaped to the forest was to get away from an oppressive feudal system, so they did indeed represent a kind of freedom from tyranny, but the forests were not lawless: forest law, introduced by William the Bastard, was outside of the common law and exceptionally cruel. Poor people venturing into the forest to catch a rabbit could be executed. I’m sure Helen doesn’t mean that we live in a tyranny and the internet is the only place of escape, or that the internet is the preserve of the aristocracy and plebs should not be allowed in (since that plainly isn’t true). So what she must mean is that the internet is outside the common law. But this isn’t true. If you threaten to blow up an airport on twitter, for example, you will be tracked down and prosecuted.

When Helen is questioned further about her plan to end anonymity on the web, she says

There’s obviously also a big question mark about anonymity on the web. Of course, a lot of people blog and tweet under nicknames, and that’s OK, but what I do have a question mark about is whether you should be required to give your real name and address when you get an e-mail account, so that if someone’s a persistent offender, it would be easier to trace them

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

This reminds me of the brilliant plan by Derek Wyatt MP, the then chairman of the All Party Internet Group, who I wrote about in my “Second Sight” column in The Guardian way back in 2003.

[Wyatt] recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the US. He’s a man with a plan. To end spam, the government should legislate to make all email addresses contain their owners post code. I would become dave.birch@GU27EB.chyp.com. It is a cunning plan. If someone sends you spam, you can track them down.

[From Inside IT: Who has a plan to end spam? | Technology | The Guardian]

There’s been no obvious improvement in the quality of political thinking about technology in general and the online world in particular since the earliest days of the interweb tubes. Perhaps we should either force political parties to forgot about women-only shortlists have some science or engineer-only shortlists or perhaps enforce a parliamentary quota to limit the number of MPs who are PPEs or lawyers (lawyers are particularly damaging to the parliamentary system, because they are trained to win arguments not to find the correct solution to a problem).

What I found most disturbing, though, was when the interviewer asks Helen about one of the practical problems with her plan and is told “I haven’t really thought it through” which might stand as a motto for our entire political class.

Honestly. The quality of debate at the intersection of politics, culture and technology is pathetic.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes