if:book took to the streets yesterday at the National Day of Out(r)age protest outside Verizon world headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Here’s Reverend Billy, a local performance artist/activist who styles himself as a televangelist (he’s sort of annoying, but entertaining in small doses). His cry: “accesselujah!”
The crowd was quite small, fenced in along a single block outside the towering Verizon building. A few handfuls of grassroots media folks and other miscellanies gathered to protest the odious COPE HR5252 legislation, which threatens net neutrality and PEG (Public, Educational and Governmental) Access channels on TV. The mission is to rally one person for every telecom/cableco lobbying dollar. Judging by yesterday’s turnout, things aren’t looking so hot.
I kinda liked this sign though:
Today in Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
For New Yorkers today (some of us will be there):
National Day of Out(R)age – New York City Protest
Location: Verizon World Headquarters
140 West Street at Vesey Street
Date/Time: Wednesday, May 24th 12:30-1:30 (arrive 12:15)
ACE-23 trains to Chambers St.
Organized by the saveaccess.org Coalition with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), NYC Grassroots Media Coalition, Paper Tiger TV and more!.
In a recent post, Susan Crawford magisterially weaves together a number of seemingly disparate strands into a disturbing picture of the future of privacy, first looking at the still under-appreciated vulnerability of social networking sites. Recently ratcheted-up scrutiny on MySpace and other similar episodes suggest to Crawford that some sort of privacy backlash is imminent — a backlash, however, that may come too late.
The “too late” part concerns the all too likely event of a revised Telecommunications bill that will give internet service providers unprecedented control over what data flows through their pipes, and at what speed:
…all of the privacy-related energy directed at the application layer (at social networks and portals and search engines) may be missing the point. The real story in this country about privacy will be at a lower layer – at the transport layer of the internet. The pipes. The people who run the pipes, and particularly the last mile of those pipes, are anxious to know as much as possible about their users. And many other incumbents want this information too, like law enforcement and content owners. They’re all interested in being able to look at packets as they go by their routers, something that doesn’t traditionally happen on the traditional internet.
…and looking at them makes it possible for much more information to be available. Cisco, in particular, has a strategy it calls the “self-defending network,” which boils down to tracking much more information about who’s doing what. All of this plays on our desires for security – everyone wants a much more secure network, right?
Imagine an internet without spam. Sounds great, but at what price? Manhattan is a lot safer these days (for white people at least) but we know how Giuliani pulled that one off. By talking softly and carrying a big broom; the Disneyfication of Times Square etc. In some ways, Times Square is the perfect analogy for what America’s net could become if deregulated.
And we don’t need to wait for Congress for the deregulation to begin. Verizon was recently granted exemption from rules governing business broadband service (price controls and mandated network-sharing with competitors) when a deadline passed for the FCC to vote on a 2004 petition from Verizon to entirely deregulate its operations. It’s hard to imagine how such a petition must have read:
“Dear FCC, please deregulate everything. Thanks. –Verizon”
And harder still to imagine that such a request could be even partially granted simply because the FCC was slow to come to a decision. These people must be laughing very hard in a room very high up in a building somewhere. Probably Times Square.
Last month, when a federal judge ordered Google to surrender a sizable chunk of (anonymous) search data to the Department of Justice, the public outcry was predictable. People don’t like it when the government starts snooping, treading on their civil liberties, hence the ongoing kerfuffle over wiretapping. What fewer question is whether Google should have all this information in the first place. Crawford picks up on this:
…three things are working together here, a toxic combination of a view of the presidency as being beyond the law, a view by citizens that the internet is somehow “safe,” and collaborating intermediaries who possess enormous amounts of data.
The recent Google subpoena case fits here as well. Again, the government was seeking a lot of data to help it prove a case, and trying to argue that Google was essential to its argument. Google justly was applauded for resisting the subpoena, but the case is something of a double-edged sword. It made people realize just how much Google has on hand. It isn’t really a privacy case, because all that was sought were search terms and URLS stored by Google — no personally-identifiable information. But still this case sounds an alarm bell in the night.
New tools may be in the works that help us better manage our online identities, and we should demand that networking sites, banks, retailers and all the others that handle our vital stats be more up front about their procedures and give us ample opportunity to opt out of certain parts of the data-mining scheme. But the question of pipes seems to trump much of this. How to keep track of the layers…
Another layer coming soon to an internet near you: network data storage. Online services that do the job of our hard drives, storing and backing up thousands of gigabytes of material that we can then access from anywhere. When this becomes cheap and widespread, it might be more than our identities that’s getting snooped.
Amazon’s new S3 service charges 15 cents per gigabyte per month, and 20 cents per data transfer. To the frequently asked question “how secure is my data?” they reply:
Amazon S3 uses proven cryptographic methods to authenticate users. It is your choice to keep your data private, or to make it publicly accessible by third parties. If you would like extra security, there is no restriction on encrypting your data before storing it in S3.
Yes, it’s our choice. But what if those third parties come armed with a court order?
Grand theories about upheavals on the internet horizon are in ready supply. Singularities are near. Explosions can be expected in the next six to eight months. Or the whole thing might just get “flushed” down the tubes. This last scenario is described at length in a recent essay in Linux Journal by Doc Searls, which predicts the imminent hijacking of the net by phone and cable companies who will turn it into a top-down, one-way broadcast medium. In other words, the net’s utopian moment, the “read/write” web, may be about to end. Reading Searls’ piece, I couldn’t help thinking about the story of radio and a wonderful essay Brecht wrote on the subject in 1932:
Here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers….turning the audience not only into pupils but into teachers.
Unless you’re the military, law enforcement, or a short-wave hobbyist, two-way radio never happened. On the mainstream commercial front, radio has always been about broadcast: a one-way funnel. The big FM tower to the many receivers, “prettifying public life,” as Brecht puts it. Radio as an agitation? As an invitation to a debate, rousing families from the dinner table into a critical encounter with their world? Well, that would have been neat.
Now there’s the internet, a two-way, every-which-way medium — a stage of stages — that would have positively staggered a provocateur like Brecht. But although the net may be a virtual place, it’s built on some pretty actual stuff. Copper wire, fiber optic cable, trunks, routers, packets — “the vast network of pipes.” The pipes are owned by the phone and cable companies — the broadband providers — and these guys expect a big return (far bigger than they’re getting now) on the billions they’ve invested in laying down the plumbing. Searls:
The choke points are in the pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and the choking will be done….The carriers are going to lobby for the laws and regulations they need, and they’re going to do the deals they need to do. The new system will be theirs, not ours….The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did.
If Brecht were around today I’m sure he would have already written (or blogged) to this effect, no doubt reciting the sad fate of radio as a cautionary tale. Watch the pipes, he would say. If companies talk about “broad” as in “broadband,” make sure they’re talking about both ends of the pipe. The way broadband works today, the pipe running into your house dwarfs the one running out. That means more download and less upload, and it’s paving the way for a content delivery platform every bit as powerful as cable on an infinitely broader band. Data storage, domain hosting — anything you put up there — will be increasingly costly, though there will likely remain plenty of chat space and web mail provided for free, anything that allows consumers to fire their enthusiasm for commodities through the synapse chain.
If the net goes the way of radio, that will be the difference (allow me to indulge in a little dystopia). Imagine a classic Philco cathedral radio but with a few little funnel-ended hoses extending from the side that connect you to other listeners. “Tune into this frequency!” “You gotta hear this!” You whisper recommendations through the tube. It’s sending a link. Viral marketing. Yes, the net will remain two-way to the extent that it helps fuel the market. Web browsers, like the old Philco, would essentially be receivers, enabling participation only to the extent that it encouraged others to receive.
You might even get your blog hosted for free if you promote products — a sports shoe with gelatinous heels or a music video that allows you to undress the dancing girls with your mouse. Throw in some political rants in between to blow off some steam, no problem. That’s entrepreneurial consumerism. Make a living out of your appetites and your ability to make them infectious. Hip recommenders can build a cosy little livelihood out of their endorsements. But any non-consumer activity will be more like amateur short-wave radio: a mildly eccentric (and expensive) hobby (and they’ll even make a saccharine movie about a guy communing with his dead firefighter dad through a ghost blog).
Searls sees it as above all a war of language and metaphor. The phone and cable companies will dominate as long as the internet is understood fundamentally as a network of pipes, a kind of information transport system. This places the carriers at the top of the hierarchy — the highway authority setting the rules of the road and collecting the tolls. So far the carriers have managed, through various regulatory wrangling and court rulings, to ensure that the “transport metaphor” has prevailed.
But obviously the net is much more than the sum of its pipes. It’s a public square. It’s a community center. It’s a market. And it’s the biggest publishing system the world has ever known. Searls wants to promote “place metaphors” like these. Sure, unless you’re a lobbyist for Verizon or SBC, you probably already think of it this way. But in the end it’s the lobbyists that will make all the difference. Unless, that is, an enlightened citizens’ lobby begins making some noise. So a broad, broad as in broadband, public conversation should be in order. Far broader than what goes on in the usual progressive online feedback loops — the Linux and open source communities, the creative commies, and the techno-hip blogosphere, that I’m sure are already in agreement about this.
Google also seems to have an eye on the pipes, reportedly having bought thousands of miles of “dark fiber” — pipe that has been laid but is not yet in use. Some predict a nationwide “Googlenet.” But this can of worms is best saved for another post.