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Archive for May, 2006

So now the Administration feels its necessary for Internet Service Providers to keep detailed logs of our behavior online, just in case we might do something that could be construed as disloyal or comforting the enemy (whoever and wherever he is). At least this is so far just a proposal, whereas it now appears that they have been clandestinely keeping telephone and e-mail contact logs on us — all of us, not just suspects or terrorists, but all of us — all along.

What's with these people?

Bob Herbert in the New York Times has said it very well:

Mr. Bush wants ordinary Americans to remain in a perpetual state of fear — so terrified, in fact, that they will not object to the steady erosion of their rights and liberties, and will not notice the many ways in which their fear is being manipulated to feed an unconscionable expansion of presidential power.

[snip]

This is a road map to totalitarianism. Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included an excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people."

I keep looking around for the conservative that Mr. Bush says he is, the one who values the Constitution, who reveres the Rule of Law. All I see is a would-be tyrant and his slavering syncophants. Hopefully his dismal approval ratings will translate into an electorial smack-down for this whole world-view.

Some of my friends, who regard themselves as "patriotic conservatives" chastise me for not "standing behind our President." I'm sorry, I am related to Patrick Henry. When he said "Give me liberty . . . " he meant liberty from a king, not the liberty to select a new one. We don't do kings in this country. We don't do people who think their power or position makes them above the law.

For a great book on rationally approaching security I suggest Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier. Come to think of it, his security blog is well worth reading, too.

It seems that FDR was right — in the depths of World War II he said, "The only thing we have to fear is — fear itself." Not the Japanese, nor the Nazis, but just plain fear.

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I feel compelled to make some observations about the future of the Internet. This future is inexorably tied up in its past, so here's a brief overview that focuses on the practical user experience, rather than on the technology. This will ultimately help us see where the phenomenon of the Internet is taking us.

1. Age of Email and Bulletin Boards. Starting about 1984, closed networks such as Compuserve and AOL began offering email among their members, and hosting user-posted diiscussion bulletin boards. Compuserve at one point had several thousand bulletin boards, and other stand-alone servers that could be dialed into hosted more. Gradually, and somewhat unwillingly, these closed systems began to transfer emails from one host to another, but focused on having private content available only to their members as a way to justify their membership fees. Around 1987 most of these services offered "Internet access" ports, sometimes for an added fee.

2. Age of the Static Web. Until the early '90s, the only way to actually move data around was by using FTP, the File Transfer Protocol. You found a file, guessed if it might contain something you wanted, downloaded it, opened it, and saw if it did. Then in 1991 Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the Web and its protocols, and in 1992 Marc Andreessen and others brought out Mosaic, a graphically-oriented browser. We can now access files that "show themselves" in a window, and by using embedded links, access other pages. Lots of "stuff" is available on the Internet, but its all "look and see" static display pages.

3. The transaction Web. Then in 1996 some governance changes allowed the "legal" use of the Internet for commercial purposes, and companies lost no time in exploiting this. Not only could users / customers see information about a company or a product, they could buy it and have it shipped to them. Some of the earliest users were banks, travel companies, and software vendors, whose products didn't need to be shipped, but very shortly physical products were orderable on the Internet. I brought out US Bank's first corporate website in 1995 and the first transaction-enabled site in 1997. By 1999 everybody needed a web-based e-commerce capability, which caused excessive investment in "anything Internet" which then lead to a spectacular collapse starting in 2000.

Over the next several years there was little change in capability but huge changes in access: the Internet becomes ubiquitous. Vast numbers of people around the world became connected, and merchants and others figured out how to design user-friendly websites that were aimed at the practical needs of actual people doing their work. The Internet, via the Web, becomes a utility service, like water or electricity. Search engines like Google and Yahoo help people find what they are looking for, quickly and relatively non-technically. Oddly enough, email remains the "killer app" and the most-used Internet service.

4. The Engaged Internet. Starting in late 2005 the combination of pervasive broadband connectivity and some interesting new system development toolsets started to facilitate new and powerfully engaging services that ride on the Internet rails. Some are delivered via the web (often with embedded browsers that you don't see as browsers at all) and others as "widgets" that live as icons on the user's desktop. There are now multi-user games that allow players to create avatars representing themselves and play with sometimes hundreds of other users around the world. Like to instant-message your friends? Cross-system IM clients such as Gaim in essence repeat the experience of 10 years ago when e-mails were allowed to jump from network to network. Cell phones can access websites, but who really wants to see a website on a cell phone? However, they can take pictures which are then posted directly to Internet-based picture repositories such as Flickr where your friends can see them in near-real-time.

OK, the point: this progression is not a linear expansion of some set of capabilities into the future. In fact, each jump I have identified is in fact a considerable discontinuity with respect to the one before it. The web is NOT just an extension of the facilities that Compuserve, AOL, and The Well offered, its completely different and not just because of the invention of the browser. The Transaction Web uses the same browser, but the services that the sites are providing are qualitatively different. So in a period of less than 20 years we have at least 4 completely discontinuous jumps in practical usage of Internet-based services that were not really predictable based on history.

In my next post on this subject, I will take the exceedingly rash step of assessing where all this is leading.

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The Egyptian Bombings

Mixed thoughts on these unfortunate attacks. Its so common now — "another suicide bombing in the Middle East . . ." we hardly notice except to comment on the body count and then back to our daily lives. Then the Administration starts banging the drum of blaming al Qaeda, our bogie-man of the decade. But all terrorists are not al Qaeda! Not even all Islamic terrorists are al Qaeda. And why bomb the Sinai? Yes, lots of tourists there, but still its not that great a target.

An Egyptian-American law student in Washington has written an excellent article on NewsVine on the rationale for this attack (and several previous ones), which I extract below:

The Sinai has been transformed from a sleepy backwater into one of Egypt's most expensive and well-developed areas. Tourists from all over the world have discovered the Sinai, with its world-class beaches, reefs, and natural parks. [snip] As a whole, the Sinai now accounts for at least 25% of Egypt's $7 billion per year tourism industry.

And not one penny of this goes to the Bedouin. For the Bedouin, the last decade has been one of anger and defeat, as they have seen land that they consider to be theirs developed at a break-neck pace and without their consent. [snip] Tourists come to the Sinai and see a beautiful and sprawling playground; Bedouin look at the Sinai and see nothing but environmental degradation and foreign invasion. Their way of life has been severely disrupted, and they barely have the resources to put food on the table.

So then what happens?

The reality is that in the world today, when people are radicalized by their circumstances, they turn to terrorism. It is the tool of choice for all marginalized indigenous groups, from Latin America to Asia to Israel and the Palestinian territories. I do not point this out to excuse terrorist violence, but to understand it. Obviously people like Osama bin Laden are not concerned with economic difficulties or political marginalization. But their recruits are.

The "war on terror" will not be won by answering violence with violence. It's time to declare a "war" on oppression and economic marginalization. Until the political and economic order of the world is fair and just, terrorism will be here to stay.

I could not have said it better. And as India and China continue on their accellerating development they are creating their own internal minorities who are excluded for one reason or another from the benefits of this development, we can expect they will become the object of new terrorist groups and our world will have slid a little further into unhappiness and unease.

If you have trouble getting into NewsVine to see the original, email me.

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