[CENSORED]

"Wikipedia censored"
Image via Wikipedia

Update: It gets worse. Our government has an “Irish SOPA” in the works. More or less draconian? It’s hard to say – they seem content to leave the scope and force of this legal power entirely up to (whisper it: technologically illiterate) judges.

Many websites, US-based ones especially, shut themselves down today. You probably know it’s about legislation before the US congress to block websites linking copyright material. Someone on RTÉ Radio 1 described it as “The entertainment industry versus the technology industry”, but that’s quite wrong. The fight is between the entertainment industry, and all of us. Hollywood and the record companies on one hand, freedom on the other.

Yet they’re winning. It’s an incredibly wealthy industry, and it will go to ever more desperate lengths to stay that way. Its advantage is vast economies of scale: You can make a record or film once and sell it to millions and millions of people – often several times.

Its disadvantage? Mainly, a business model that is as dead as the mastodon.

This industry arose out of the application of mass production technologies to the arts – the reproduction and rapid distribution of vast numbers of music and video recordings. It made sense to charge handsomely for this when it was a remarkable technical feat that you could not possibly accomplish yourself. Now however the reproduction and distribution of such things is, quite simply, trivial. And it is hard to persuade people to pay for something they can easily do for themselves.

So instead, the entertainment industry has resorted to threats. Continually it lobbies for more and more draconian legislation. And they are getting it, and they will continue to get it, because they are rich, and politicians are hungry. Plus they share an interest. When freedom of information can bring down governments in the Middle East, government may begin to think that the entertainment industry has a point.

So after only a few decades of freedom from literary censorship here in Ireland, there are now websites I cannot reach – not at least if I use Eircom as my ISP. In the UK, British Telecom set up a filter system expressly to block child pornography. As a child could have predicted, and despite every assurance to the contrary, this filter is now being used to uphold the interests of Big Entertainment. And in the US they’re debating whether to give that industry the right to take down websites at will, a power that can only be called commercial censorship. To quote Wikipedia:

SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won’t show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

Essentially the old medium is demanding the right to wreck the new.

But the world is not changing just for Big Entertainment. I make my living from creative work, I have had to adjust to reality. The publishing industry is transforming – not without pain, but at least without demanding protection. And it’s not like show business is going to disappear. People will always make money out of entertainment – just not the ludicrous fortune they make now.

The industry has had its day in the sun, the technology has moved on. Can it please just accept that gracefully, without further undermining the principle of freedom of thought and expression, without incarcerating any more teenagers?

The Death Of The Killer

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The most shocking of all images of Gaddafi - as a sane, smiling human being

I.Doubt.It is pleased to announce that we for one will not be showing you pictures of Muammar Gaddafi’s damaged corpse. Why so squeamish, some ask. Are we too sheltered from death? I think not. We all come across plenty real death in our lives, not least our own, and we are saturated with incredible amounts of fake death in the guise of entertainment.

It’s just decency. I think all humans feel that the dead deserve a measure of respect. As far as we can tell even our closest relatives like homo erectus, who used tools and fire and probably spoke, did not do anything with the bodies of their dead. Nomads, they simply moved on, leaving corpses where they lay. With sadness no doubt, but without ceremony. By contrast all humans, even those who have no belief in an afterlife, treat the bodies of the dead with a special respect – when they can. It appears to be an instinct, one unique to our species.

So when we turn images of real dead people into a lurid form of quasi-entertainment, parading them for shock, sales, or triumphalism, it is quite literally dehumanising.

I’m not surprised that they killed him of course. It’s a war. Should we care that they did? Yes. We should always care that the right thing is done. And I don’t think it was here. Gaddafi died in custody. According to the BBC, acting Prime Minister Mahmoud…

…confirmed that Col Gaddafi had been taken alive, but died of bullet wounds minutes before reaching hospital.

It remains unclear just how and when Gaddafi got those bullet wounds.

Nonetheless this is good news for Libya, and I hope an example for the rest of the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt, leaders stepped down in the face of mass protest and are alive to this day. Gaddafi clung to power, and was shot in the belly and head. That may give other dictators – like, say, Syria‘s Assad –  something to sleep on.

Blackberry Crumbles

Blackberries
When our children hear us talking about BlackBerries, they'll think we mean these things. (Image by Liz Brooks via Flickr)

The only real question is, whose government did this?

Blackberry phones are beloved of businesses worldwide because they allow people on the move to communicate in a secure, private way. By the same token, they’re hated by governments – oppressive regimes especially of course, but also those facing internal security threats. (I’ll leave you to decide into which category the UK falls.) So far, their maker RIM has stood pretty firm on not allowing governments to eavesdrop on their traffic.

So when that service suddenly breaks down, first in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and now in South America, you wonder just who it is showing them that business is all about compromise. As in: compromise, or I’ll kill you.

Oh they say it’s a physical fault in their servers. But they would, wouldn’t they?

Google+ Is A Trap

Google Docs – You create them, but they don’t belong to you

Not two months ago, I wrote:

…Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

With Google+, the straitjacket of authentication has perceptibly tightened. As Guardian blogger GrrlScientist discovered to her cost, it’s a little-known term of service that a Google Profile (which you need for any personalised Google service, not just Google+) must be in your own, real, everyday name. She has just found that all her Google services – Gmail, Reader, Blogger, Google Documents, YouTube, Google Plus – have been taken away, with apparently no recourse to appeal.

Have you created a Google Profile? (I know I have, but I don’t remember doing it. I just thought I was signing up to use Gmail.) If it isn’t in your real name, if it’s in a nickname, a pen name, the name of an alter ego or game character or a name you had to make up because your real one was gone already, then Google can take it away too.

How much could you lose, if Google suddenly decided to throw you into the outer darkness? More than you might easily imagine, as this similar case makes clear:

Now he had pretty much converted everything to Google services. He used its storage (and paid for extra capacity), used its social network, used its email and used its applications. He is a grad student and had more than 500 articles cached for research in his Google reader (gone); he had migrated all of his bookmarks to Google bookmarks (gone); he had consolidated on Google his 200 contacts (gone), his backup files (gone) and his docs (gone).

The guy even put all of his calendar items (doctors’ appointments, meetings, dates) onto Google, and they are now gone. He had used Google Maps extensively, and all of those records are gone. Oh — and it isn’t just access to new items either. His entire mail account and documented history have been deleted.

[Read the victim’s own testimony here]

Your documents, your emails, your pictures, your contacts – you life, dammit. If you have an Android Phone as well, I imagine you’re pretty much screwed. And let’s be perfectly clear, these people didn’t do anything wrong using their Google Profiles. Merely breaking an obscure term of an agreement they were in all probability barely aware of making has allowed Google to trash their online lives – and shatter their trust in one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Why would Google be so draconian, withdrawing their useful – for many now, almost essential – services for what seem arbitrary reasons? It is because they don’t want just to be service providers. Google see how they can be gatekeepers of an authenticated, business-friendly, government-friendly Web, one where your every move is – quite legally – observed and documented, where your online persona is precisely riveted to your real-world identity. An Internet, in other words, where everybody knows you’re a dog.

Now combine that with the same ubiquity and penetration into your personal life as Facebook or Twitter, combine it with the fact that you are happily providing Google with information about the people you know, by dividing them into different categories of trust, genetic kinship, etc., and you begin to wonder what you’re getting into.

But it’s clear what Google are. They’re getting into the business of delivering authenticated identities. You could call it policing.

What Comes After Facebook?

Facebook is great. Apart from the countless things I don’t like about it. I don’t completely trust them with my data. I worry the small convenience I get from using their service is outweighed by the value of the information I give them. I suspect I’m being exploited in ways I don’t even understand yet. I’m concerned that a single commercial organisation has such a crucial, influential role.

You see where I’m going here. Facebook is the new Google. So when, with their new “Google+“, Google try to be the new Facebook, it’s basically Google being the new new Google. Which makes me dizzy.

But I wish them luck. It’s great to see some competition here, and I strongly suspect that I’m going to prefer Google+ to Facebook. It has one clear advantage anyway: You can separate your interaction into separate areas, or ‘Circles’ as they call them, like family, work and friends.

Which was also exactly the idea behind Diaspora… This start-up have (had?) a potentially Facebook-beating idea, but they took too long to become a thing you could actually use. Now someone else has stolen the mantle of Facebook challenger?

Well, yes and no. Google might be better than Facebook, but they can’t stop being Google. There is a prize – a prize almost beyond measure – to be won here, but I’m not sure if either can reach it.

Facebook, mostly by accident I think, created a wholly new thing. Thanks mainly to its ubiquity it has become an online extension of ordinary life, and one’s Facebook footprint a projection of the self onto the Web. And that in turn has the potential to solve another problem, if problem it be: That of authentication.

Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

Facebook presents a less foreboding form of authentication – not as rigorous as biometrics perhaps, but as good as we have in most of real life: Authentication by social relationship. To paraphrase an old saying, you can tell a lot about a person from their friends. And of course, most people simply wouldn’t go to the trouble of creating and maintaining a fake Facebook identity. So it is becoming almost a universal authentication system. You see  “Login using Facebook” all over the place now, saving you the trouble of creating a new user account – with a new password – on all sorts of sites.

Which must come as quite a shock to Google, who probably thought they had that market in the bag.

It’s not a straight fight between these two approaches though. The system that will win is the one that can fuse the depth and usefulness of this casual social authentication with the rigour of a biometric one. An unfakeable Facebook(-like) profile would become virtually part of a person, indistinguishable almost from their identity. It could easily become the main way in which we interact with one another, both socially and commercially. And that would be some golden ring.

But if I’m going to (be forced to) use some sort of authentication, I want to do it through an organisation or system I don’t feel is exploiting or policing my thoughts and actions. I don’t think the social network with the complex and constantly changing privacy settings is the outfit for the job. Nor do I think it’s the corporation that seems actively hostile to the concept of privacy. If some system is going to be given the role of presenting me as trustworthy to others, it needs to be one that I trust too.

So it’s too early to give up on Diaspora or other “Facebook killers”. There is a vast amount of money to be made. All you have to do is be nice.