Archive for January, 2006

Relevant to my post below, there is an excellent site that measures restrictions and restriction attempts against the Internet. This isn't done by a bunch of cranks, it is a project sponsored by Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Toronto, called the OpenNet Initiative. On it there are country-by-country reports on what these restrictions are and how they work. For example, in China anyone can have an account with an Internet Service Provider, but anyone who does so is required to register that fact with their local police within 36 hours.
Interesting also are their links to the anonymizer services that can help these blocked citizens breach these barriers.

Why should we care about some country's restricting content on the Internet? We say "we are for freedom," but there is no political freedom without press freedom, and the Internet is the press, extended. A mass of people with a grossly distorted view of reality could be rather dangerous to their neighbors, or to us.

We should be assessing who are our friends in the world by their degree of Internet freedom. Sadly, some of our "allies," especially in the middle east, are among the worst offenders.

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We talk a lot sometimes about freedom of the press in what are usually called the "Western Democracies" (plus a few others like India). We take such freedom as part of our birthright but I don't think we often realize what it means — how it plays out operationally, in real life. This week I have seen both ends of the spectrum:

First, Google has agreed to filter its search results to make certain sites simply disappear for Chinese citizens, e.g. any mention of Tibet, Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, internal incidents of unrest, etc. The Chinese already use border content filtering (provided, sadly, by "western" companies) to try to keep such sites from being seen in China, but apparently that wasn't enough. Now a supposedly impartial search service will be sending a highly filtered output to China. Pathetic China. And pathetic that Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and all the network filterers implement this for them, in the name of Profit.

On the other side, this month yet another news-presentation service entered beta: http://www.newsvine.com (sorry, you can't see it yet, its a restricted beta). Newsvine not only presents unfiltered, unedited AP and other "hard" sources, it has the capability for topic-related editorial commentary and blogging by the public built in. This comes on the heels of such things as Digg, a tech news service that allows readers to vote on what stories are most important, which "promotes" them higher on the front page of the site. There seems to be a constant stream of new ways to get and participate with / comment on the news. The only question is, of all of these how will they make money and which will survive?

So on the one hand, the medieval dictators of China, Russia, Singapore, most of Africa, etc., labor so hard to control their populations by presenting a much-filtered "reality" to them, while we here are bombarded daily with new ways to see all, analyze all, and trumpet our (however nuckleheaded) opinions about it to the world. In their countries, the press is a slave to the regime, while in ours the press can bring down presidents, drive members of Congress from their offices, and agitate relentlessly against injustice and unfairness.

What an inheritance that is.

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Here’s from a recent Times editorial, issues that are right on the mark in these days of Presidential eavesdropping and subpoenas against Google to obtain seemingly limitless access to records of the personal behavior of private US citizens:

During the War of 1812, an angry mob smashed the printing presses of a Baltimore newspaper that dared to come out against the war. When the mob surrounded the paper’s editors, and the state militia refused to protect them, the journalists were taken to prison for their own protection. That night, the mob broke into the prison, killed one journalist and left the others for dead. When the mob leaders were brought before a jury, they were acquitted.

Alexis de Tocqueville tells this chilling story in “Democracy in America,” and warns that the greatest threat the United States faces is the tyranny of the majority, a phrase he is credited with coining. His account of his travels through America in the 1830’s, which is often called the greatest book ever written about America, is both an appreciation of American democracy, and a cautionary tale about its fragility.

–snip —

Tocqueville would not have been distracted by all the talk that warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detainment of enemy combatants and other civil liberties incursions are serving the cause of freedom. He understood that the newest incarnation of despotism was likely to be ushered in by the “avowed lover of liberty” who is a “hidden servant of tyranny.”

Democracy in America, Then and Now, a Struggle Against Majority Tyranny – New York Times

Of course, the question is: who is the majority these days, anyway? It sure seems to be only people at the fringes. Whatever happened to the center, to the people willing to craft a political compromise so as to comfortably include the most people? Whatever has happened to the rule of law and not of men? It hurts me personally to have the technologies I have championed and implemented all my career starting to be used to curtail freedom and healthy debate on our national issues.

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Civility! Not!

One of the attributes of the current highly-polarized political environment is the gradual degeneration of polite discourse. And, it starts at the top. For example, the current ruling party suggests that people hold different opinions than theirs are not just wrong, they are in fact traitors giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Sorry, respect for the persons you disagree with, however wrong-headed they may be, is a hallmark of civilization and of our democracy. Violate that, and this is what you get (from an article in the Times):

The Washington Post shut one of its blogs yesterday, saying it had drawn too many personal attacks, profanity and hate mail directed at the paper’s ombudsman

The closing was the second by a major newspaper in recent months. An experiment in allowing the public to edit editorials in The Los Angeles Times lasted just two days in June before it was shut because pornographic material was being posted on the site.The Post’s blog, open to the public since Nov. 21, was shut indefinitely yesterday afternoon with a notice from Jim Brady, executive editor of www.washingtonpost.com.Mr. Brady wrote that he had expected criticism of The Post on the site, but that the public had violated rules against personal attacks and profanity.”Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being,” Mr. Brady wrote. “Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it’s a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.”

In an interview, Mr. Brady said the site had been overwhelmed with what he described as vicious personal attacks against Deborah Howell, the newspaper’s ombudsman.

She wrote a column about Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, and said that several Democrats “have gotten Abramoff campaign money,” apparently intending to say that they received campaign money from Mr. Abramoff’s clients.

Her column generated complaints, and after saying she thought her views were being misrepresented, she was attacked again, prompting her to say she would not post any more replies.

The complaints escalated into what Mr. Brady said were unprintable comments that started “sucking up the time of two people” to keep them from appearing on the blog.

Full link: Paper Decides to Close Blog, Citing Vitriol – New York Times

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I'm seeing a lot of software and web-based services lately, aimed at supporting groups . Some of these are social: FaceBook and MySpace come to mind. Classmates is the grand-daddy of these. Flickr is a site that allows people to share photos, indexed among other things by self-assigned categories, and Delicious provides a platform to allow the sharing of browser bookmarks among your group or with the public at large. And of course blogs create ad-hoc communities of readers and commenters.

What's new is a focus on collaboration services that are fully functional in a business environment. Take a squint at 37 Signals, a Chicago-based company that makes a set of project management, personal-organizer, collaborative writing, and to-do list products that are simple, inexpensive via subscription (and in some cases, free), and web-resident and hence intrinsically sharable. (Note: I'll have more to say about simple, non-bloated software in a future post). Writely is a web-based, no-application-on-your-machine that not only gives you fairly complete word processing, it allows collaborative editing and review by others.

All this is a reflection of two related societal trends: first, our social network is ever more geographically dispersed, and second, or work network is, well, ever more geographically and organizationally dispersed.

Used to be that people were transferred around by their large corporate employers (it has been said that IBM stood for "I've Been Moved") and when this happened people seemed to relegate their old friends to the Christmas-card-only list. Now, high-speed broadband networks enable email, digital picture attachments, personal web pages, and fluid communities via blogging, shared bookmarks and the like, that find it easier than a phone call to keep together. And, given the opportunity, they ARE keeping together.

The need for business collaboration is no less imperitive, although often significantly less fun. As big corporations have shed employees and business units by the thousands, smaller companies that are more focused (e.g. web designers and developers, ad agencies, marketing service companies, specialist manufacturers) find themselves working together on projects that may come and go literally in months. Even within companies, divisions may be located across the globe and believe me, scheduled conference calls just don't do the trick (I've been there!), and scheduled VIDEO conference calls are absolutely no better — a perfect example of a linear extension of an old technology into new irrelevance! Into this mess comes Internet-based collaborative software tools such as those from 37 Signals.

I don't know which is cause and which is effect here — the Internet has enabled this, or just responded to it, but its going on and getting bigger. But it wouldn't be here without broadband Internet and the ubiquitous browser interface.

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Favorite Links

Here are a few of my most highly-used links:

http://tech.nytimes.com/top/news/technology/cybertimesnavigator/index.html : the New York Times’ own newsroom source link page, what their reporters use. Doesn’t get more authoritative than this.

http://www.schneier.com/blog/ : Bruce Schneier’s take on Internet security issues, always relevant, an every-day read.

http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks : The Association of Computing Machinery’s Forum on Risks to the Public in computers and Related Systems. Not a group of Luddites, this is a relatively analytical view of what can go wrong when you plunk a computer into a perhaps already-inadequate process. It’s aimed at engineers who are building hardware and software.

http://www.co.honolulu.hi.us/cameras/waikiki_beach/waikiki.htm : a live webcam aimed at the statue of Duke Kahanamoku at the very center of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. The Duke was an Olympic gold-medalist in swimming in the 20s and is credited with re-inventing the sport of surfing. A great lunchtime view, see all the tourists have their picture taken there.

http://www.theindependent.co.zw : The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper; the local news stories, letters to the editor, and sports news all remind us of how alike we really are. Puts the world news in a new perspective.

http://www.economist.com : actually thoughtful analysis of the news with a distinctly European flavor.

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