If you needed the internet that bad, you would have created it yourself

Monday 11 June 2018. We will see a repeat of the weeping and wailing that Hillary Clinton’s supporters did as they witnessed what they thought was impossible: an electoral loss to Donald Trump. Advocates for the treatment of broadband access as a telecommunications service will weep and wail not because of the loss of internet service, but because they will be out of bullets when the scare tactics imposed on millions of consumers do not come to fruition. As June goes into July into August into election season into Kwanzaa, another argument for attracting anti-Trump voters will fade away.  As the tyrannical Fake Left jump onto social media and create new forums and hashtags for the next rally, they will soon take for granted that the internet still works after all.

What I find disconcerting is the emotion attached to internet access. “If everyone is not connected, we will all sink into the pits of Hades.” “If I am not online, I am inconsequential.” “The internet is crucial to our daily living and well-being.”  None of this is true. Unlike water and energy, internet access is not a necessity for the continuation of life. Approximately 11% of Americans do not use the internet, according to data from Pew Research. More than likely, these individuals are getting information they determine as pertinent to their lives from old tried and true sources: first hand observation, published news sources, direct contact with government agencies, family and friends. These data sources are not as fast or as glitzy, but they have worked for centuries and more than likely were used by the individuals who built this digital world.

I expect the percentage of Americans not using the internet to fall over time when you consider that in 2000 approximately 48% of Americans were not online.  Our children are already internet savvy and this use of online services will only continue as they get older. As we on the tail end of the Baby Boom enter retirement, we may find ourselves using it more to connect with fellow Boomers who, unfortunately, may not be up to travel for various reasons.

What we need to avoid is allowing political factions such as the Fake Left to play on the emotions stemming from the belief that without net neutrality rules, consumers won’t be able to get to the websites of their choice, see speeds from their favorite websites slow down, or have their data sold to third parties they did not approve.  This narrative should be seen for what it is; another way to get votes.

If the Fake Left were really concerned about protecting your privacy and the speed at which you access data, they would tell you that you are responsible for reading the fine print of every service agreement for every information service provider you access. Arguing that terms and conditions are written in “legalese” is no excuse for skipping over disclosures and subjecting your privacy to abuse.  If, as the Fake Left argues, the internet is that crucial to everyday living, so crucial that it should be treated like a utility, then equal fervor should be applied to the consumer who decides to use online services.  In other words, the Fake Left should stop encouraging people who can’t fly to buy an airplane and attempt to fly it without bearing the consequences.

If you can’t get what your want from an information service provider in terms of privacy or speed, then maybe you should invest in consumer encryption services such as a virtual private network, or using a heavily encrypted network or browser such as TOR.

There are also the old methods of information gathering: a telephone (landline) and a newspaper, from which you can access by paying cash, the ultimate form of encrypted currency. Bottom line, there are ways to protect your individual privacy without implementing more onerous rules on society.

Morgan Freeman finds out that the internet has turned millions of Americans into lawyers, prosecutors, and jurors

The only thing missing from today’s internet charge, trial, and conviction of actor Morgan Freeman on allegations of sexual harassment at a workplace are the digital eyewitnesses like the ones that caught Al Franken play-fondling Lauren Tweeden’s breasts.  In Mr Freeman’s case, the eyewitnesses were human. The prosecutors, lawyers, and jurors, however, are mostly digitized and charges and convictions merge and rapidly go viral in a globe that is increasingly connected.

My title implies that the number of arm chair attorneys and jurors has increased. Check your Twitter and Facebook timelines and observe your followers and friends opining on allegations by eyewitnesses (allegations not yet entered into any legal record) and an apology issued by Mr Freeman (questionable as to whether it is admissible as evidence and probably meaningless since he admitted to nothing). As to whether the number of commenters contributed significantly to the degree of virility, I would answer that while there was some contribution, the number of commenters was not the significant contributor. The main contributor is the number of online editors or gatekeepers.  There are more people today that are giving a “thumbs up” to posting a story.

If you lived in Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1970s, you had one newspaper and two television stations providing you news. That meant three editors deciding what local news got broadcasted and back then local TV news coverage was sparse, in my opinion.  Today the internet has changed that.  Alternative online news sites and blogs mean that a non-story to one editor is a scoop to another. It is not that the same level of information is spreading faster. Viral means to increase the amount of available information that gets to more consumers via digital means.

The increase in the amount of information reported is compounded by an enlarged forum within which the public is exchanging ideas. Some net neutrality advocates would call an enlarged forum an example of the openness of the internet where more media consumers can be heard. Hence the millions of armchair lawyers and jurors.

How valuable are these opinions? In a court they don’t mean much. Judges and attorneys would not want juror assessment tainted by uninformed opinion, meaning these days they would have to look under a rock to find people outside an earshot of a podcast on the matter.  To a social scientist the public exchanges online provide some data on attitudes toward the tawdry behavior Mr Freeman is accused of, but as an experiment, as a measure of opinion the public exchanges don’t provide the best data because the collection is not subject to the best controls.

Probably the only benefit that matters is that people can claim that while they are not a lawyer, they slept at a Holiday Inn and the ability to vent support, denial, anger, or frustration en mass is benefit enough.

Happy anniversary, World Wide Web. Now, let’s go back to 1988

On 12 March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee publishes a proposal to link hypertext with transmission control protocol, the basis for the world wide web. On 6 August 1991, he launches the first web page. Prior to his proposal, the internet was pretty much a niche hideout for academics and military researchers. Berners-Lee’s proposal helped introduce ‘democracy’ to the original dark web of interconnected computers.

Democratizing digital information via open network architectures unleashed the digital demons that Mr Berners-Lee would like to see regulated today. We went from a relatively simpler system where Dr James Haywood Rolling Jr could send Dr Marshall Shepherd samples of research that could add artistic flavor to the otherwise drab depiction of weather patterns, to the current system where an 18-year old dressed in psychedelic garb can do the booty clap in front of a smartphone and send the images live from Accra. Using this information, the Digital Daemons, i.e. #Facebook#Google, and #Twitter, can create profiles based on every ‘like’ the booty clapper receives and market services and products to consumers.

Closer inspection of the history of the world wide web and Mr Berners-Lee’s criticism of today’s social media/social network companies exposes a downside of the premise that the Digital Daemons are negatively impacting global connectivity via the internet. Mr Berners-Lee is concerned that the one-half of the planet currently not connected to the internet may be at a disadvantage culturally and economically and that connecting to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that is the world wide web may be the developing world’s salvation.

Ironically, it is that arrogant premise that the world needs to be connected to a single standard that drove European colonial expansion across the globe and spawned a global financial system anchored by the Bank of International Settlements, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to replace the colonizer when Europe entered its post-World War II decline. Whether he realizes it or not, Mr Berners-Lee’s liberal position on digital connectivity is steeped in the European DNA for conquest.

If Mr Berners-Lee and other progressives are so bloody concerned about the negative impact the Digital Daemons are having on access to and distribution of information, they should push for an internet that existed pre-1989 where communities of value-based information exchangers created their own databases, and protocols and criteria for membership in these groups. Ironically, under that type of scenario, application of net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act would be valid because the administrators and owners of the databases could more easily be defined as consumers of telecommunications in some type of corporate form.

Sometimes you have to go back to your past to find a solution to a current dilemma. Happy Anniversary, World Wide Web.

Free Press and Public Knowledge are getting a taste of big tent progressive politics

Brian Fung of The Washington Post put out a great piece this morning describing a growing rift between two factions on the progressive side of the net neutrality debate. Grass roots groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge believe that supporters of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order should aggressively push the Congress to overturn the Commission’s 2017 repeal of the Order.

Corporate supporters of the Commission’s Open Internet Order such as Facebook and Google are taking a more centrist approach. While they apparently still support applying net neutrality rules based in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, they are now signaling that a bi-partisan Congressional approach via a new law would help resolve the net neutrality dispute once and for all.

Based on Mr Fung’s writing, the big tent has a few holes in the tarp, as meetings hosted by the Internet Alliance and attended by both net neutrality factions are growing in the number of attendees and an increasingly diverse level of issues are sprouting. Free Press and Public Knowledge are finding the hard way a couple important lessons about any corporations true mission and that diversity is an empty narrative.

First, the corporate mission. I hesitate to say that the good people at Free Press and Public Knowledge are naive (but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that their 4 million pro net  neutrality followers are), but both groups seem to have fallen for Google’s and Facebook’s silly mission statements about doing no evil and connecting the world for connection sake.

Google and Facebook created and maintained dominant positions in internet search and social networking by first optimizing their business models to maximize shareholder value, a lesson the lawyers at Free Press and Public Knowledge failed to remember from the business associations classes in the second year of law school. “Russiagate” has raised the ire of Congress and Google, Facebook, and other social networking and internet portal companies are gathering their wagons around their revenue streams and profit centers from potential government attacks. They cannot afford any regulatory volatility that will arise from the uncertainty of how net neutrality principles will be applied to broadband access providers. They are realizing that compromise legislation passed in the immediate term is good for long term growth.

While Google and Facebook play in the “attention economy”, Free Press and Public Knowledge play in the “agitation economy.” To stay relevant as a grass roots advocate leader, they must tear up the astro turf regularly. Settling the net neutrality tennis match via a bi-partisan bill means 4 million pairs of eye balls not looking their way because the show will be over. Nothing else to see here. Problem solved.

As for diverse voices, that narrative does not work. The bigger your tent, the further off course the original message drifts. Sooner or later the money bags step up and start setting priorities and those priorities will place those with the least coin ahead of the pack. The 4 million three huggers are going to have internet access no matter their personal beef with their broadband access provider. Most have access to two or three providers whether wireless or wireline. Facebook and Google cannot take comfort in any certainty. As big as they are in digital space, the wilderness is huge and there is always a young predator getting ready to spring out with new technology and the hunger and thirst to match.

Facebook and Google’s profit motives and needs are no different than the broadband access providers Free Press and Public Knowledge rail against. Facebook and Google will take control of the circus under the big tent and call for some grown up behavior that protects their revenues and profits.

 

How we long for the switchboard operator and virtual spilled tea

During the tumultuous 1960s, someone reminded DARPA that the network of connected computers it created could not be turned on its own people. The guys and gals of the agency had an “a-ha” moment in the late 1980s and decided to pass it off to private sector agents who could then, via an open source technology and a consumerist market narrative, invite the nerds from Bellvue and Arkham to create an insidious surveillance mechanism that you now call the internet.

Getting Americans, who once had a distrust of the CIA and FBI for violating their privacy rights, to spill almost all their personal beings into a computer via digital bulletin boards at first was no simple feat. The first drawing board blew up during the 2000-2001 recession. Amazon was one of the very few consumer-centric companies to survive the downturn. The internet was apparently dead ….until 11 September 2001.

The internet found its two-fold purpose. In private hands under the guise of “democratic openness”, “free speech”, “innovation”, and “market capitalism”, well-off college students would drop out of their undergrad and graduate programs and do the surveillance bidding of government by creating search portals and social media alluring enough to get unsuspecting consumers to look up information they once obtained from newspapers, the barber shop, grocery stores, and Friday night tea parties in exchange for the handing over of their personal (and typically mundane, boring) information.

The second portion of its purpose would be turned outward. Making up for the lack of human intel on the ground in the Middle East, the internet could be used to leverage messaging campaigns to spur revolt, as countries such as Egypt and Libya can attest to.

One has to wonder if the chickens have come full circle to roost as the vanguard of domestic surveillance, i.e. social media, now see its faculties leveraged by Russia as The Great Bear seeks pay back for the dent in its Middle East influence, due in part to the democracy narrative spread by the FANGs.

Yes. Life was simpler when Ruth Buzzy ran the switch board and encyclopedias, radio, television, and tea time gave you all the information you needed .

I don’t see a knowledge economy. I see a knowledge industry.

The term “knowledge economy” gets thrown around a lot. When you combine the term with other terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning”, you can be left with the impression that unless you have an engineering degree or know how to code, then you will be left to wonder the streets of dystopia, meandering through blithe in search of value or meaning. The knowledge economy, based on how it is presented, sounds like a place carved out for the information elite. I don’t take the dreaded scenario seriously because the knowledge economy does not exist. This acknowledgment is important because embracing this position provides a platform for creating social policy that effectively distributes knowledge as what it is: a capital input.

The United States has gone from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to a services economy. The labels imply that for some type of output, crops, that there are rules for the extraction, packaging, and distribution of capital necessary for producing an end product, food, and for packaging and distributing to its final destination, the end-user. Once it is consumed, it is either gone immediately or depreciating to zero value over some period of time. There is some range of exclusivity involved in its consumption. We cannot say that for knowledge.

Knowledge results from a combination of information and experience. It is about “knowing how” to do something. It is an awareness of a process behind creating some result. While the “know how” could be protected by the laws of intellectual property, acquiring information, “the noise” and human experience garnered from deciphering through the noise to find a valuable nugget of information, cannot be constrained. The rules of economy are designed to bring society closer to some certainty over how resources will be extracted and distributed, but the open environment around knowledge makes strict rules useless.

Public policy can craft rules that make packaged knowledge exclusive to the creator and owner i.e, copyrights for artistic work or patents protecting applied scientific processes, but there are different paths to creating knowledge resulting sometimes in creating similar but not same packages. Knowledge protection is limited.

For this reason, knowledge can be built upon, expand. There is really no final consumption. Knowledge is reused, modified, improved over time. Rules of economics are not as applicable as they were in agrarian or industrial society.

Knowledge is more input than it is final product. This is why, to me, the term “knowledge economy” is weak. Knowledge has been an input during each of America’s economic phases. America’s increased reliance on information and communications technology over the past fifty years doesn’t mean that “knowledge” gets to claim its own economy.

Markets can be made for knowledge. A consultant takes her insights, advice, and publications into the knowledge market where she hopes she receives an offer that compensates her for the time spent creating the knowledge product and/or presenting the knowledge product.

As for the consumer of the knowledge product, he is taking a gamble that any action plan, output or final product generated by the knowledge creates positive value or profit. The more information the consultant and the purchaser have on the forecasted value of returns on the knowledge, the more accurate the market price for the knowledge.

If anything, we may be in a “learning economy” where consumers are also becoming producers either of their own content or more durable products. The knowledge industry is one of its platforms where knowledge as input is bought and sold.

Opt-in, Opt-out policy appropriate for addressing online privacy

In May 2017, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn introduced H.R.2520, the Browser Act, a bill designed to provide consumers with some control over the use of their personal information. Specifically, consumers that use broadband access services or websites or applications providing subscription, purchase, account, or search engine services are provided, depending on the sensitivity of personal information, the choice to opt-in or opt-out of policies used by these services to manage consumer information.

For sensitive information, opt-in approval must be expressly granted by the consumer. Sensitive information includes:

  • financial information;
  • health information;
  • information about children under the age of thirteen;
  • social security numbers information;
  • information regarding a consumer’s geo-location;
  • web browsing information: or
  • information on the history of usage of software programs or mobile applications.

Consumers must be provided the opportunity to give opt-out approval for non-sensitive information.

Mrs Blackburn’s intent with the legislation is to equalize broadband access providers and edge content providers under the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency responsible for consumer protection and anti-trust law enforcement. In my opinion, this is not a far off from former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s goal of openness and transparency throughout the entire internet ecosystem; from consumer to broadband access provider to websites provided by edge providers.

What Mrs Blackburn’s bill also does is address information asymmetries, where edge content providers are viewed as having more knowledge on the value of consumer information that they extract from websites than the consumer does herself. The consumer cannot answer the question, “Is the value of the information I receive from online, x, greater than the value of the information that I give up, p, where that information is private?

It is not readily apparent whether H.R.2520 was also designed to save the consumer from asking this question: ” Why should I pay for an economic good i.e. privacy that isn’t Google’s to sell in the first place?”

Professor Caleb S. Fuller of Grove City College describes privacy as an economic good, something that the consumer wants more of. Most consumers are not willing to pay to protect this good, even though they know that firms like Google are collecting this information for free. For example, according to Professor Fuller’s research, 90% of Google’s users know that their “mouse droppings” are being tracked.While 29% of Google’s users don’t mind being tracked, 71% do. Their reasoning, according to Professor Fuller includes the fear of price discrimination based on their information; the receipt of spam advertising; the risk of identity theft; and the “dis-utility in just not knowing who knows what.”

One equitable solution, in my opinion, would be for Google and other edge providers to pay their subscribers to provide private data. Google could provide an offering schedule based on the sensitivity of the information it wishes to purchase. Consumers would have to consider the value of the privacy they give up in exchange for the value obtained from accessing web content. I wouldn’t expect every consumer to sell their data. Google will wisely set limits on its offers and a significant portion of consumers unable to get a price they want will settle for the old private data for access exchange that they have been conducting for two decades.

The opt-in, opt-out policy mitigates the work that the consumer should put in to determine the value of her data, but gives her the final say over how her private data can be used. Unfortunately this is also the down side where the market won’t be used to truly determine the real value that can be sold.