Digital Divides & Net Neutrality: Notes from a lecture

As today is the last week before the Scottish referendum which will decide whether Scotland will become an independent country I could not help but begin the lecture with a shout out to this coming monumental date. I find it hard to believe that the world is talking about anything else.

But the real point of today’s class was to talk about digital divides and net neutrality. To begin this I began by explaining how the Internet became this amazing thing it is today. We tend to take it’s coolness for granted because it is so cool (I recognize that this is circular reasoning but that is the way it is often explained).

One of the unexplained reasons the Internet became cool depends on the business model that is used. In the early days we paid for the time we were connected. This pay-as-you-go model is great but it does have a dampening effect. Since you are constantly paying the impetus is to be quick. Being quick means that the content will be light and fast to be usable.

This business model is the same as the telephone model has been for most of it’s history. We paid per minute and by distance. We were taught to be brief and idle chatting was discouraged. This is also because the infrastructure was originally highly wasteful and could only serve one user per line.

If the telephone had developed into a monthly charge instead, we could have seen a great deal more innovation and use of the system we could have created the Internet much much earlier. This counterfactual is not totally strange. The early ideas for the telephone included such oddities as dial-up concerts. Such as the one reported in Scientific American, (February 28, 1891):

In a lecture recently delivered in the Town Hall at Newton, Mass., Mr. Pickernell described the methods employed in the transmission of music by telephone. His remarks were very forcibly illustrated by the reception in the lecture hall of music transmitted over the long distance lines from the telephone building, at No. 18 Cortlandt Street, New York, and our engraving, made from a photograph taken at the time, shows the arrangement of the performers.

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

But as we all know this was not the way the telephone evolved. The Internet on the other hand did move in that direction. Rather quickly we moved from dial-up modems to fixed connections. Speed was important – but even more important was the fact that the user never had to worry about the time she was online. Downloading large files, streaming, idle browsing and most all of our online lives stems from the point where we stopped worrying about the cost of access to the Internet.

Another point that needs to be stressed is that we often confuse the Internet, the Web and what we do on our mobile devices. Put very simply the Internet is the cables and servers the infrastructure upon which several applications (such as email, netflix and the Web run upon). What we do on our mobile devices is mostly using apps which run on the Internet (but not necessarily the web).

So while the web which was developed by Tim Berners Lee became huge because he chose to give the system away without trying to patent or close it. It is now shrinking because we are becoming more dependent upon our mobile devices. For the longest time we said “the Internet” when we really meant “the Web” and now we say “the Web” when we really mean “the Internet” (via apps on our devices).

This may seem to be pedantic distinctions but they are important as each of these technologies have different strengths and weaknesses and different affordances and control mechanisms.

Once this was established we looked at this map illustrating:

What you’re looking at is a map of nearly every device that was connected to the internet on August 2. Or, at least, a map of ones that responded to a ping request from John Matherly, an internet cartographer. Motherboard

When we say everybody uses the Internet this is the everybody to which we are referring. The large dark areas are those without this, for us, basic technology. Additionally there are small places with more connectivity than the areas we would normally see as technology dense. The map also raises interesting questions about divisions created by culture and language and the problems of measurement when countries such as China are behind a firewall.

We also looked at an array of charts illustrating OECD statistics on broadband penetration per capita, average monthly subscription price, and average download speeds.

broadbandThe USA has an average broadband penetration among OECD countries but it also has the highest number of total internet subscribers by far seen in absolute numbers.

In order to have some form of consensus for our discussion on the digital divide I put forward this description:

… a gap between those who have ready access to information and communication technology and the skills to make use of those technology and those who do not have the access or skills to use those same technologies within a geographic area, society or community. It is an economic and social inequality between groups of persons.

The factors that are persistently pointed to as being the root causes of the digital divide are

  • Cost (technology and connection)
  • Know-how (how to connect, how to use devices, what to do when something goes wrong, overcoming cultural divides etc)
  • Recognizing the benefit

The latter is very interesting as most users do not need to explain why they benefit but non-users manage to make their lives work without access. It is difficult to demonstrate to non-users that they would benefit from using the technology. Indeed that they would benefit so much that it is worth struggling to overcome the barriers of cost and know-how.

Then we moved the discussion over to the Pew research report African Americans and Technology Use, which showed

African Americans trail whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall internet use (87% of whites and 80% of blacks are internet users), and by twelve percentage points when it comes to home broadband adoption (74% of whites and 62% of blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home). At the same time, blacks and whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms.

All things being equal there should be no difference in technology use. And yet there is a gap of seven percentage points. Considering most countries desire to transfer more business and services online this is a worrying number of outsiders. Remember, both groups should have users who don’t see a need for the technology – this gap is not about them.

When it came to smartphone ownership the difference was not significant (53% of whites and 56% of blacks) but I found this interesting taken in conjunction with the earlier numbers. Were some users choosing mobile devices over broadband? What were the consequences of this? Stephanie Chen was interviewed in Salon

“You can’t do your homework on a smartphone; you can’t help your kids with their homework on a smartphone; you can’t write your résumé on a smartphone. You can’t do any of that on a smartphone… As a test, I went through the process and tried to apply for a job at Walmart on a phone. It was an arduous process.”

Once again it is vital to remember that each device has it’s affordances that enable and discourage behavior.

Following this we touched briefly on the concepts of digital natives, digital immigrants and digital tourists. I can only refer back to an earlier rant of mine on the subject:

During the discussions one of the topics that came up was the digital divide which is claimed to exist between young and old (whatever do these epitaphs mean?) and then it was only natural to bring up the horrible term digital natives, digital immigrants and digital turists. All these terms were popularized by Marc Prensky and are completely horrific. And of course very popular. There were voices of reason among the crowd but at the same time the catchy phrase seemed to win over intelligent discussion.

There are several problems with the metaphor, not to mention the built in racism. In most languages, calling someone a native smacks of arrogance, a touch of racism and good old fashioned colonialism.

Who is the native? So who is the native and how does one become one? Obviously the idea here is that the youth of today are all tech-savvy and understand technology while the older generation is good at saying stuff like “I remember when…” and handling analog technology. Seriously what a load of dog doodoo. The fact that we lack common areas of interest is not a digital divide. Young people tend to have different tastes in music, love, hobbies, work, films, books than older people. Even Beethoven’s father probably complained at his sons taste in music.

Are they a group? The young are not a homogeneous group, but then again the question could be put forward if homogeneous groups actually exist at all? Does the Englishman really exist? What is it the natives are supposed to understand? This is the biggest problem with the metaphor. Yes, there are hoards of young folk who can easily send hundreds of text messages per day but does that identify them as digital? Does this mean that they are fundamentally different from those who can hardly use the mobile telephones?

The problem is that the idea of the digital native seems to be that they are (1) comfortable using all digital technology and, (2) understand all digital technology. This is most obviously wrong. The ability to be on Facebook does not prepare you for editing wikipedia, blogging or twitter. The ability to use wikipedia has nothing to do with being popular on twitter. And none of these abilities have anything to do with the ability to use the most of the functions in the simplest word processors.

The understanding of technology, how it works, what it means – in addition to its social, economic and cultural impact is quite often totally lost on these so-called natives. I mean no disrespect (even though saying this usually makes things worse) but being an enthusiastic user has no relation to understanding technology.

Metaphors are supposed to exist to help us understand complex ideas. When they do not fulfill this basic purpose they are useless or worse harmful to our understanding. A misguided metaphor is worse than no metaphor at all. And the concept of digital natives does not aid understanding –  it only creates barriers.

It was then time to deal with net neutrality and in order to do this in a more entertaining manner I showed a part of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO) 

And finally closed by appealing to them to go and read up on net neutrality, and in particular, check out the website Battle for the Net since there is still time for those who feel it to be important to react and to show politicians that the open net is something ordinary people are passionate about.

Here are the slides I used for this presentation:


The Day We Fight Back

Today, 11th February 2014, is ‘The Day We Fight Back” – a day of campaigning against mass surveillance. The problem is that we have become so comfortable with the creeping levels of mass surveillance in our lives that we no longer stop to question what is happening and what surveillance means.

Basically this is all about lack of imagination and education about the issues. Sure we love our technological toys but it is up to all of us to know what it means when the convenience of technology lulls us into accepting large scale privacy invasions in our lives. Among the reasons for the existence of large scale surveillance is that we have come to accept it rather than protest or even question it.

Standing up for our rights is worthwhile and important. Read more on the EFF site, check out the events and info on the Today We Fight Back site and why not follow Paul Bernal’s advice in 10 Ways to Fight Back. It’s not about not using your favorite tech but it’s about being allowed to use your stuff in ways which are not harmful to us.

Empowered citizens or Digital dairy cows: Notes on a lecture

The purpose of today’s lecture was to familiarize the audience with social media and what they may need to know about it. The lecture began with examples of what the media reports when social media is mentioned. The interesting thing is that media today has turned from the previously optimistic position to being more openly critical. To exemplify this I used three recent examples from Swedish media where the papers reported that research showed: smart phones make us selfish, Facebook spreads unhappiness & the need to be connected causes insomnia among young people.

Generally speaking the extremes of the debate either view social media as revolutionary (and fundamental for the Arab spring) or trivial. Defining the Arab spring as a Facebook revolution degrades the pain, suffering and efforts of the individuals doing the work. My example of the trivial is a response from an older professor when he heard I was working on an article on Twitter:

“Twitter? Isn’t that where everyone talks about what they had for breakfast?” Just as with the revolutionary view of social media this may have a grain of truth. Social media can be used for trivial conversation but it would be incorrect to see social media as only trivial. It may also be important to remember that most conversation is trivial. Trivial conversation is what creates and maintains social relations.

The approaches to social media belong to a longer tradition of techno-optimism and pessimism. My examples of optimism are a quote from Wikipedia:

Social media…At its most basic sense, social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content. It’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. (Wikipedia, May 2009)

What does “the democratization of information” even mean? My second optimism example is Time Magazine’s choice of YOU as person of the year in 2006.

My choice of pessimists were a quote from Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture” (2007)

“Out of this anarchy… what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated.”

Say what you like about Keen, but he is extremely clear about his position. The second pessimist quote is from Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield:

“My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

From here the lecture moved on to the developments to what led to social media decade and the changes our new toys have caused. Naturally there are profound changes occurring all around us but the small stuff is fun to note.

The Wordfeud app is an interesting example. A couple of years ago admitting of regularly playing Scrabble may have been a form of social suicide – today things have changed and we happily boast of a high score. Similarly, a few years ago looking at pictures of your friends, enemies and other loose ties would have been voyeurism and maybe borderline stalking – today it’s just Facebook. Our use of technology has normalized abnormal behavior.

Our connectivity and our toys have also diminished our need for boredom – a feeling that may have filled an important purpose. I have written about Boredom as source of creativity earlier.

At this point the lecture moved on to some important points about what technology can do. Beginning with my favorite example of the Tokyo park bench read it here.

When we look at the effects of social media the most important point to begin with is the seminal quote by blue_beetle

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold

I like this quote but I have always felt that there was something missing. We are not really the product – we are the creators of the product, which is data. We are digital dairy cows and the product is digital milk.

A social change caused by social media is our relationship with our contacts. We are the stars in our own performance attempting to present our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. We document our lives for the entertainment of others – or maybe for the creation of the image of a more exciting life. As an example I showed my coffee project (a mix of entertainment, amusement & sadism – to be explained in a later blogpost).

In order to understand more about what we are doing it is good to know what the controllers of the infrastructure think about. It is important to understand the digital dairy farmers.

One of the main players is Mark Zuckerberg and his position on “radical transparency”

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”

There are several things wrong with this position (not even focusing on the fact that his company profits from this position). According to Zuckerberg the days may be coming to an end (which I seriously doubt) but what to do now? The media is full of examples where individuals have been punished (socially or economically or more) for information that may not have been illegal or even immoral.

In addition to this Zuckerberg has claimed that privacy is no longer a social norm. Additionally, Zuckerberg’s goal seems to create a personalized view of the world (check out Pariser’s Filter Bubble or some stuff on personalization I wrote here). In Zuckerberg’s own chilling words:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa.

It is worrying that Zuckerberg is profiting from pushing these positions at the same time as he develops a technology that promotes excessive sharing and profits from the same.

So if social media is not going to show social responsibility, then who will fix this problem?

Usually we turn to the law. However the law is all focused on concerns with Orwell’s view of surveillance via Big Brother. But today we are the ones giving away our information for the sake of convenience and entertainment – we are in the controlled world of Huxley’s Brave New World (check out the Orwell/Huxley paradox here).

So we are left to our own devices – in more ways than one. What can we expect of the future? First we will see an increased efficiency in personalization (as I have written earlier):

The same is true of information. The sweet and fatty information in a long historical context was an understanding of who was allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? And whom can I get my genes over to the next generation (obviously just a nicer way of thinking about getting laid!). This is why we today have a fascination about gossip. Which minor celebs are attempting to sleep with each other takes up an extraordinary part of our lives. But this was all ok since the access to gossip was limited. Today, however, we are connected to the largest gossip engine ever conceived. Facebook may try to hide it in its spin, but part of our fascination is all about looking at each other. The problem is that there is only a limited amount of time in life and spending too much time on gossip limits our ability for more relevant information. We are becoming information obese and the solution is to decrease fatty information intake and go to the information gym regularly.

The development of walled gardens or information silos… Facebook (and other silos) is branding us like the cattle we are. By attempting to lock our behavior into their site and prevent us from leaving they are diminishing our freedom – a freedom which was originally created in the design of the Internet and is being subverted by the growth of social media (Read Long Live the Web by Tim Berners-Lee).

We are not going to be helped from our locked stalls by either law or corporations. We are left to practice thoughtful self-restraint and hope that the law will eventually catch up with our technology and needs.

The slides I used are here.

Looking for Orwell, missing Huxley, or Why privacy law is failing: Notes from a lecture

Being invited to talk somewhere else is always thrilling. Being asked to go to Berlin was even more so. The event was part of Internet und Gesellschaft Co:llaboratory who have been working on Internet & Human Rights. The event was a full day of talk (admittedly a lot in German but I had wifi and work to do so I was happy) followed by an open seminar with three talkers. These notes are from the presentation I gave at the seminar.

The lecture opened with a look at three historical highpoints of privacy regulation and thought. First was 1890 which was the year where Warren & Brandeis published their seminal paper The Right to Privacy which attempts to create a new right in society. Today, living in a rights-focused society arguing for rights seems natural (or banal) but what was it like to be the first to argue the right to privacy?

To exemplify the situation I showed the killer app of the 1890s. It was the Hollerith Tabulating Machine

Hollerith Tabulating Machine

The legal protection of privacy did not immediately spring to life and the next great step came in the 1970s where first the Lander of Hesse in Germany and the in 1973 Sweden created data protection legislation. The idea was to protect against the abuses of data collection but the state and large corporations.

The killer app of the 1970s is the impressive UNIVAC computer

UNIVAC image from Musée de l’Informatique

Kind of looks like the communal laundry room in my apartment building.

The next step was the European Data Protection Directive which attempted to harmonize data protection across Europe. It came in 1995 which as a killer app had the Windows95 operating system (couldn’t resist it!) and more importantly the first browser wars between Netscape and Internet Explorer (Microsoft released versions 1 and 2 in 1995). The browser wars are incredibly interesting as they show the importance of controlling the flow of information to the end user was not dependent on the hardware or operating system. It also shows that power consists of inserting oneself between the information and the end user – but I digress.

Before continuing I wanted to remind the audience that the law (and lawmaker) is behind the times so I quoted the late great Douglas Adams from his book The Salmon of Doubt

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Following this I added a theoretical dimension to the lecture. The regulatory pyramid is intended to show that we focus on the law – this is what I was taught at law school. But the law is a self-sustaining system that ignores (or struggles to) the realities of social norms/rules and architecture. Social norms, not law, are what control most of our behavior the law is often too expensive, too drastic, too formal to be an efficient mode of conflict resolution. When someone “steals” “your” parking space, you don’t sue or call the prosecutor. You apply social norms. Your reaction depends on your upbringing and context – you may smile sweetly, flip them off or become verbally or even physically violent. Architecture is how the world works. It controls us by the rigidity of its being.

Regulatory Pyramid

If you want to slow down cars from speeding the law could be applied (a traffic sign will remind us of a pre-existing rule), or we use social norms by reminding drivers of accidents or children playing in the area. By implementing architecture we remake the physical environment and, for example, add bumps in the road – at this all cars must slow down. It is, however, important not to confuse the equal treatment with fairness. Architecture will prevent even an ambulance that may have good reasons to drive faster in a slow area.

As an example of my theory I show this wonderful/awful park bench in Tokyo.

image from Yumiko Hayakawa essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

The bench is an example of outdoor public furniture known as anti-homeless technology or anti-bum benches. In order to prevent an undesirable group of people from using a public space we could create a rule against it – but by creating a law we need to accept the democratic constraints in rule making. Someone could remind us that in a democracy excluding people is inherently wrong. By choosing a bench that is unsuitable for sleeping the democratic process is bypassed. Additionally the park officials can always claim to have made an aesthetic choice i.e. we like this bench, rather than being against homeless people. This is control through design choice – imagine the control that may be created in manipulating communications technology.

The next segment is surveillance theory. As individuals we constantly leak and spread information. Most of us attempt to create strategies of control for our information flows. The most common is the process of compartmentalization which means that we present different information to different groups. I.e. the information you give about what you did over the weekend may be different when presented to your boss, wife, mother, children, best friend or lover. This is not necessarily lying but it is an attempt of controlling flows of information. Technology, and in particular social media, is all about losing the ability to practice this control.

Traditional surveillance theory is based upon Michel Foucault’s developments of Jeremy Bentham’s plans for the Panopticon prison. The concept is basic – if we are unaware of being watched we will internalize our own surveillance and become our own jailers. This is the whole premise of George Orwell’s book nineteen eighty-four: Big Brother is watching you. People under constant surveillance can be controlled. But is this really true? The control by the state is under constant refinement and yet citizens still attempt to cheat and steal – violent crime in general remains constant despite cctv. Could it be that Foucault (and Orwell) got it wrong?

The next step is technology. For me it’s the radical Huxleyian shift. What Orwell feared was totalitarian control via surveillance technology. But Huxley premised a more base society. Give people enough sex and drugs and they won’t care who controls them. Enter the convenient, comfortable, entertaining world of social media.

Social Media Timeline

Our newfound joy of communications technology has already changed our behavior in a major new way. Patterns of behavior that were deemed amoral, antisocial or even illegal have now become acceptable. Spending an evening looking at pictures of your ex-partners new partner would have been a textbook case of voyeurism and stalking. Today, its just Facebook. This reminds me of this early cartoon:

Additional changes in our behavior which should concern us are the fact that we can no longer refuse, ignore or exclude social media from our lives. Many claim they don’t have time for such nonsense but this will not be an efficient information control strategy. Even individuals outside social media use are being photographed and tagged by users and therefore identities are being created of them. These “friends” will also ensure that opting out is not a viable option.

The final level of surveillance is autoveillance. This is the self-chosen role of spreading information about ourselves. This is not the fact that my telephone stores and communicates my location information and more. This is part of the performance lifestyle which has created a performance anxiety, a need to present interesting inspiring activities from an ordinary lifestyle.

This may be silly, but is it harmful? Here it is not enough to study the moves of individuals (even millions of individuals).

Basically we are being seduced by technology, locked by licenses & killed by a lack of social responsibility. This creates four harmful outcomes that need somehow to be countered: Privacy, Personalization, Information obesity, & mind control.

As with the Japanese park bench above, understanding the users will not enable us to see the intentions of the manipulators. We must look to those with influence in social media and who can be more influential than Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying privacy is no longer a social norm

Which is interesting given the fact that he has created a system which helps us to forget our inhibitions about sharing personal information and that his business model is premised on our sharing. He has a stake in the removal of protections against privacy.

Zuckerberg on the topic of personalization of technology: “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa” (Pariser NYT)

Sure there have always been gatekeepers choosing which information is important for me or not. But these gatekeepers did not create a personal information resource only for me. The daily newspaper is created to appease a society of readers. I may chose to ignore an article but at least it’s there in front of me. In a personalized world I will no longer be confronted by any kind of information that does not fit my profile.

The Holy Grail of many Internet providers is to give us this kind of personalization. The problem occurs when this kind of convenience and service removes our ability to control our flows of information. We lose the ability to read information that we may need – because we are constantly being bombarded by the information Facebook thinks we want.

Information obesity: Our bodies crave sweet and fatty foods. One way of looking at this is through the lens of evolution. Finding fatty and sweet foods was key to our survival but these were not to be found everywhere or everyday. Today we are surrounded by fatty and sweet foods so access is not the problem. The problem is overindulgence and obesity due to accessibility. This forces us to think about diet, to think about exercise. Self-control is essential to our survival.

The same is true of information. The sweet and fatty information in a long historical context was an understanding of who was allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? And whom can I get my genes over to the next generation (obviously just a nicer way of thinking about getting laid!). This is why we today have a fascination about gossip. Which minor celebs are attempting to sleep with each other takes up an extraordinary part of our lives. But this was all ok since the access to gossip was limited. Today, however, we are connected to the largest gossip engine ever conceived. Facebook may try to hide it in its spin, but part of our fascination is all about looking at each other. The problem is that there is only a limited amount of time in life and spending too much time on gossip limits our ability for more relevant information. We are becoming information obese and the solution is to decrease fatty information intake and go to the information gym regularly.

The final concern is of mind control. This is all about what happens when a social media is told that you are interested in a certain thing. Say, for example, you have a secret pleasure in seeing videos of kittens being kicked. You would never say this aloud – and if you did your social group would correct you by telling you this is an unhealthy impulse. You may even manage to convince yourself that you have no sadistic urges in this area. However, social media knows the truth and will continue to give priority to information about kitten kicking. You may resist some of it but if you have an urge you probably will click on some of the information. By clicking you re-enforce the information algorithm and you will be sent even more kitten kicking information. A question of moral responsibility can now be posed: While your latent sadistic tendencies are being reinforced and enhanced – what is the moral responsibility of the provider? This is akin to asking whether a drug pusher has any moral responsibility to his clients. In your answer consider that many users of social media are very young and there is no general awareness or discussion on the harms of social media.

So what about regulation? Well the problem is that we are considered to be autonomous. In other words we are old and wise enough to live our own lives. Indeed we have all agreed to the terms of use of social media sites. We may not have read them, maybe not understood them, they may have changed drastically since we read them – but legal fiction is that we agree to them.

This shouldn’t be a problem. If society deems an activity harmful enough it can, and should, legislate against it – even if some may protest this regulation. There have been protests against: motorcycle helmets, seatbelts, hitting children and the right to smoke (makes you lose faith in human intelligence) but the social cost was deemed greater than the loss of individual autonomy. The problem with social media is that the social costs are not particularly visible.

Finally on the question of gatekeepers and Orwellian or Huxleyian control it is interesting to note that typical Orwellian control is easier to see and therefore easier to protest against. Therefore the cost of maintaining it against the wishes of the people is too high to bear in the long run. But Huxleyian control is based on making me happy, fulfilling my desires. Counteracting this requires that I first become aware and then exercise self control. This is difficult on an individual level and close to impossible on a social level.

Here are the slides which accompanied the lecture.

Because we can: comments from a lecture

The weekend and FSCONS is now over. This year my presentation was the last talk of the final session. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it?

My presentation was on the topic of privacy and raised the question of whether it is possible to maintain ones privacy in the world of extreme technology dependencies and broad social technology adoption. The answer is, dependably & depressingly, negative.

The talk was entitled Off the Grid: is anonymity possible? And focused on different forms of surveillance that are in the hands of uncommon players today. This is not big brother society, this is not little brother society. What we have is a society were privacy is lost because our contacts inform their contacts of interesting details from our lives. These details are able to be spread further by my contacts contacts. Potentially reaching the ends of the Internet. Whether or not this happens does not depend on anything I control but the interestingness of the information.

To illustrate this I displayed this tweet:

Translation: Thing that can happen at #fscons: @Klang67 proclaims himself queen. A bit unclear over what.

This is a form of surveillance through acquaintances and therefore I have chosen to follow the French wording (surveillance is French for viewing from above) and called this connaivellance for the fascinating word connaissance or acquaintance. I find the French word more interesting than the English as its root connai is the word for knowledge. Therefore, the French connaissance (acquaintance) is someone who has knowledge of you. How very apt.

The next form of surveillance is the self-surveillance of the social media age where we tell the world of ourselves. Or as a professor I met earlier in the week protested, with absolute conviction: “Twitter? That’s only people telling each other what they had for breakfast!”

Another thing I find fascinating with social media is the way it shapes our communication. One part of this is the way in we move towards the extremes. Few people online drink coffee, read books, or listen to lectures… We all seem to read fantastic/terrible books, drink great or awful coffee and lectures are either inspiring or snooze fests. All this with a shower of smileys too.

Both this autoveillance (which I have written more about here) and this connaivellance filled much of my lecture. As the law fails to protect, and our acquaintances and ourselves enthusiastically push information the last lines of defense must be the attitudes and interests of the social media creators. What my lecture showed was that protecting us is not in their interest. Therefore we stand unprotected. The slides from my presentation:

This morning I came across a further example of surveillance which needs to be added to the list. The story comes from a Forbes article by Dave Pell, entitled Privacy Ends at Burger King. The short version of the story is that a man who heard a married couple argue at Burger King began live tweeting the event and added pictures and even video clips. He began his broadcasting with the tweet “I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t write this any better.”

Pell’s analysis:

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple’s marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can’t stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

This example provided an interesting additional example to my discussion on surveillance. For me, this example shows an additional reason why any attempts to control social media (legally, socially or technically) will fail. The desire of people to communicate the interestingness in their (and others) lives makes control a difficult affair.

FSCONS continued late into the night.

Is user education a red herring?

The BBC podcast of The Media Show with Steve Hewlett is always interesting to listen to. The latest show I listened to (episode 28 September 2011) contained a segment on the recent changes to Facebook and what these may mean for privacy. Hewlett interviewed Facebook’s Christian Hernandez and attempted to get him to see the privacy effects of the new changes.

Basically the new changes will mean that your friends will see what you are doing online – unless you opt out of showing those specific pages. In other words Facebook will happily announce to your “friends” that you have been looking at pages on weight loss (or whatever) and naturally let them draw their own conclusions from what they see of what I saw.

Hernandez was quick to stress the elements of user control over his/her information. If you chose you may opt-out of showing friends the specific pages you are viewing right now. Additionally if you forget you can remove the pages after the fact.

My problem with the former is that I need to be aware that my Facebook friends will always be looking over my shoulder. I am easily going to forget this. As for the latter – well once my friends know what I have looked at, removing the links/pages/information is not effective… I have already outed myself.

When pressed for a reasoning to why the privacy encroaching changes were made Hernandez talked about Zuckerbergs vision of a social net. When pressed further he returned back to the concept of user control. Eventually he did accept that these changes will require user education.

In other words we, the users, need to learn new proactive, protective forms of behavior. The platform owner has washed their hands – its our problem that they have given us the gift of freedom and control. Wonderful terms like freedom and control become red herrings in the world of data harvesting.

But if we are in danger from social media shouldn’t we be able to expect that the state will somehow regulate to protect us from our own behavior. They did so in areas such as smoking, seat-belts and motorcycle helmets… Sure there is a lot of interest in attempting to update privacy regulation from the pre-social media age – but its tricky. Also not everyone is in favor of regulation.

An example of this is Jeff Jarvis’ recent book Private Parts – Gordon Crovitz reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal

“Congress is considering several privacy bills. But Mr. Jarvis calls it a ‘dire mistake to regulate and limit this new technology before we even know what it can do.’

“Privacy is notoriously difficult to define legally. Mr. Jarvis says we should think about privacy as a matter of ethics instead. We should respect what others intend to keep private, but publicness reflects the choices ‘made by the creator of one’s own information.’ The balance between privacy and publicness will differ from person to person in ways that laws applying to all can’t capture.”

Jarvis is right that it is complex to regulate what we do not fully understand but this means that in the meantime we are losing our integrity rights every time the platform owners make changes – nominally to increase our freedom and control – but in reality to increase their control and profits. Lets never forget what MetaFilter user blue_beetle wrote “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

Profiteers may act to protect access to raw material – not the rights of raw material.


Is the age of integrity over?

Today I am doing something different – stepping out of my comfort zone (but not too far). I was invited to give a short presentation (10 minutes) to spark a debate among young people between 12-19. Most of them turned out to be around fifteen. So I know I can talk to adults but the question was whether I could be relevant to teenagers.

The question I put forward was whether the need to protect integrity was a thing of the past.

So I began by presenting the question and then started with a bit of integrity orientation. The position I presented was that previously the way in which we protected our integrity was not necessarily by keeping information secret but rather giving different pieces of information to different groups of people. I called this a strategy of compartmentalization.

What this basically means is that you present different images of yourself to different people. What you did on Saturday is a constant – but you may present different stories of Saturday to your mother, girlfriend, boss, sister, friend and a total stranger (indeed you may even attempt to tell yourself a different story).

In a world where compartmentalization strategy is implemented the greatest fear is that the different groups will share information or that a body from above has access to different versions and will be able to question the truth of your stories.

Then along comes Social Media and the constant sharing of masses of low level unimportant data about what we are doing, where we are doing it, with whom – and sometimes even why.

The problem is no longer that of different compartments knowing what you did but rather attempting to handle the fact that the compartments probably do know several versions of your truth. What we are forming here is a hive-mind. In a hive mind where everyone knows everything about you the question is no longer one of maintaining boundaries between groups. For examples of hive minds I showed them The Borg from Star Trek, The Protoss from Starcraft, The Agents from the Matrix films and The Warewolves from Twilight.

The question becomes one of handling total openness. The question becomes one of: what is the point of attempting to maintain integrity regulation? In a world were we know everything about each other the question of wanting integrity becomes suspicious. And the old idiot saying: You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide becomes downright ominous.

The discussion that followed was interesting, exciting and creative. The kids touched upon the meaning of truth, the nature of evil, the importance of secrets and the meaning of life. I was very impressed.

Toilet brush covert surveillance camera

Via BoingBoing comes the story of a creepy man secretly filming women in a Starbucks restroom.

A 25-year-old man hid a video camera disguised as a plastic coat hook inside the women’s restroom of a Starbucks in Glendora, CA, and secretly recorded more than 40 women and children using the toilet over two days. The man “downloaded the device about every hour to his laptop computer while sitting in his car,” according to police. (LA Times)

Most of us would be in agreement that the actions of the man are creepy. But what I find interesting is the point that nowhere in the original story (LA Times) is the manufacturers responsibility discussed. What moral responsibility does a manufacturer/designer have for a camera, disguised as a plastic coat hook, that can be affixed to a wall?

The coat hook is – in this context – an almost a reasonable product. There is a whole range of hidden bathroom camera devices on the market. How about the toothbrush camera, toilet brush camera, shower radio camera, bathroom light camera, toothpaste camera, hair clipper camera, soap dish camera, shower mirror camera, shampoo bottle camera… (all from the same manufacturer)

There may be certain situations where invading someones privacy with the help of covert surveillance cameras is legitimate – maybe even necessary. But the mass market for goods to cover these situations is hard to envision. It is even more difficult for me to understand when it could be a legitimate need to covertly film people in the bathroom. And yet there are mass market cheap goods that cover this particular situation.

So when the creepy 25-year-old uses these products – he is being creepy. But when would the use of this stuff not be creepy?

Does the fact that these products exist and are easy to buy promote and encourage creepy behavior?

What libraries should protect

In the digital age the idea of being concerned about someone knowing which books we read may seem strange. But as a matter of principle I feel it should be important that this kind of information is not saved. Very often we hear the argument: if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide.

That argument is so stupid that its incredible. It shows that a pithy statement will turn peoples intelligence off. Think about any persecuted minority and then repeat the statement one more time. I dare you.

So back to the library.

The books I read can tell you a lot about me. But the problem is that you cannot know what books I read and how they have impacted my life from a list of books I have borrowed from the library. This list will tell you nothing about whether I read them, how I understood them, if I read them to criticize or to admire… or just to impress someone else. All you know is that I have borrowed them. Unfortunately, in times of stress, such data will be used as “proof” of something. And not only in times of stress.

In January this year the Swedish Justitiekanslern (Chancellor of Justice) found that the university library in Göteborg (my uni) was not wrong to save data on borrowed books and the borrower even after the books were returned. (case 2356-09-42: Personsuppgiftslagen (1998:204) är inte tillämplig på personuppgifter i ett låntagarregister som förs fortlöpande vid ett universitetsbibliotek decided 2011-01-17

Their reasoning is that the information about the books and borrower fall under the well established Offentlighetsprincipen (principle of public access) and would be saved – and made accessible to anyone who wants it. Information that falls under Offentlighetsprincipen may be removed from the archives under certain conditions.

In the case of the books individual borrowers have borrowed this data is removed two years after the library card expires.

Since I have had a library card at my library since 1997 or maybe even earlier all the books I have every borrowed from my university library are a matter of public record and can be extracted by anyone.

So I am dismayed, but not surprised, by the outcome of the decision by the Chancellor of Justice. But what really gets me annoyed is the attitude of the libraries. This is not the kind of data they should be collecting. This is not the attitude they should be having towards their readers. Their behavior does not promote openness, but rather will decrease the likelihood of people reading “suspect” material – whatever that may be. I thought libraries were all about open mindedness and learning. Now I am sure that what they are doing is convenient for them – and we have come to expect companies selling the souls of their employees and customers for their convenience.

But libraries? For shame.

Privacy and plancenta

Judging from the number of cases where medical staff have been fired for posting images on Facebook it seems obvious that Facebook somehow manages to confuse professionals into forgetting the basic principles of privacy. Internet Cases reports on the interesting case where a student nurse was expelled for posting a picture of herself with a placenta. She has now sued the college and won.

Plaintiff nursing student and some of her classmates attended a clinical OB/GYN course at the local hospital in Olathe, Kansas last November. They got permission from their instructor to photograph themselves with a placenta. Plaintiff posted the photo on Facebook. She got expelled from school. Yes, I know you want to see the photo. Here it is. Byrnes v. Johnson County Community College, 2011 WL 166715 (D. Kan., January 19, 2011).

It is difficult to see how a picture of a placenta can be viewed as a privacy violation even if photographing body parts may be less than professional. The placenta has no rights in itself and identifying the owner of the placenta from an image of the organ seems impossible.