Network neutrality notes

Network neutrality means no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, or modes of communication. This includes neither blocking sites nor offering tiered service models. It can be viewed from the perspective of users wanted to access particular content, such as peer-to-peer sites for video or music, or from the perspective of producers seeking to deliver their content more effectively to users.

History. Concerns with telegraph: “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception. (Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860)

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the purpose “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States… A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”

The Internet developed out of public funded services, such as Arpanet, NSFnet, TCI/IP. Eventually centralized routing aspects were removed, allowing the free-wheeling Internet we use today. But in recent years, corporate control over key aspects of the Internet has grown, essentially privatizing a service developed at public expense to serve public needs.

Tiered service. Opponents of net neutrality see it as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Yet, Comcast, for example, “intentionally and secretly blocked access to lawful content on the Internet,” e.g.,  peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, such as BitTorrent. The FCC attempted to block that, but lost that authority after a US Court of Appeals decision on April 6, 2010.

Google may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.

Issues.

  • Innovation: The Internet has been a striking incubator of new ideas, enterprises, products, services, and jobs. This is to a large extent based on its open practices.
  • Privacy: An Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require an additional level of monitoring, i.e., surveillance, so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged. (Cohen, 2010).
  • Free speech: The more service is based on the ability to pay, the less access will ordinary people have to the public forum. ISPs, with a legal responsibility to their shareholders alone, have no incentive to guarantee high quality access to all, and in fact, are legally bound not to do so. They could degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or did not support their political views.
  • Secrecy: In a Kafkaesque mode, there is no provision for corporations to reveal their selective control of content, including whom they target for preferential or degraded service, why they do so, or even whether or how much they have done. Nearly all major phone and cable companies have promised their shareholders that they plan to block or degrade the content and services of their competitors.
  • Access to information: The other side of free speech. Access suffers when what’s available is based on how much someone paid to put it there.

Who decides. Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech, innovation, etc., the big question is “Who should decide internet policy?”

References

Cohen, Noam (2010, August 15). Internet proposal from Google and Verizon raises fears for privacy. The New York Times.

Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.

US Court of Appeals (2010, April 6). Comcast Corp. v. Federal Communication Commission..

Priorities and values

Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to

Put another way:

The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.

(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)

Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?

The death of net neutrality

This is bad news.

Google, once a defender of net neutrality and a company whose informal motto was “don’t be evil,” may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.

WASHINGTON — Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege. via Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web

Essentially this means large corporations and governments will have access to the high-speed lanes; their content will be seen first and fastest. The Internet will become a reserved lane system with the on-ramps blocked for those who can’t pay. A system built with public funds will increasingly become a means to fill the pockets of the few at the expense of the public.

Let’s push that metaphor a bit more: Internet corporations are legally responsible to their shareholders and not to the public. We will soon see them devoting virtually all of their resources to improving only the high-speed lanes leaving potholes for the rest of us.

Save the Internet and others are pushing Google and Verizon to be more socially responsible, but that’s at best a short-term fix. Net neutrality, including our access to information, requires legislative and judicial protection. Otherwise, we’re facing a serious compromise of the First Amendment.

References

Silver, Josh (2010, August 5). Google-Verizon deal: The end of the Internet as we know it. Huffington Post.

Tady, Megan (2010, August 5). Google turns its back on net neutrality. Save the Internet.

Wyatt, Edward (2010, August 4). Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web. New York TImes.

Evolving thinking in Afghanistan

After the earlier counterterrorism (CT) strategy failed in Afghanistan, the US began to emphasize counterinsurgency (COIN). Now that COIN has been shown to fail (e.g., as in WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary in ), we’re switching to CT again. This is called “evolving thinking.”

When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.

Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas of the country.

Our evolving thinking should be showing us that there is still no clearly articulated and shared goal for the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Without that, it’s difficult to say which of these two, or some other approach, does work or to recognize success once it’s achieved. As Andrew Bacevich writes (2010), there’s growing evidence that western way of war itself has failed.

Harry Paget Flashman (see book cover above) had difficulty separating fiction from reality in his own exploits in Afghanistan. Apparently, reviewers of the Flashman books had the same problem. But we can’t afford to do that any longer in Afghanistan.

References

Bacevich, Andrew (2010, July 29). The end of (military) history? Mother Jones.

Cooper, Helene, & Landler, Mark (2010, July 31). Targeted killing is new U.S. focus in Afghanistan. The New York Times.

Kaplan, Fred (2009, March 24). CT or COIN? Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies. Slate.

Whitman, Alden (1969, July 29). Gen. Sir Harry Flashman and aide con the experts. The New York Times.

The endless war

There’s some dispute about whether the war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, but there’s no question that it’s gone on a long time and that it shows little sign of heading toward even an end, much less a successful resolution.

When people talk about WWII, there is sometimes disagreement about the means–were the atomic bombs and fire-bombings necessary? There is less debate about the outcome in terms of ending Nazi terrorism and the Japanese expansion. And even during the war there was a sense all around that an end of some sort would be achieved; there would be a surrender or at least an armistice. The fighting would eventually stop, one way or another, and it did.

But we’ve now entered the era of the endless war. Can Kandahar be secured? Maybe, maybe not. But what then? Do the shifting alliances of enemies–Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network simply walk away? Is there a version of Hirohito to say “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and then surrender? Will young Afghani’s ignore the poverty and devastation and choose to move on? Will ordinary people forgive the occupation, the drones, the collateral damage, the cultural insensitivity, the broken promises? Where are even implausible scenarios of how that will happen?

It’s not enough to say that there are people on the other side who have done or want to do bad things. There must be a vision of change. Yet all we hear is that top operatives have been killed, some place has been temporarily conquered, or that we have a timetable for success.

Writing in Mother Jones, Ann Jones says,

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair. —Jones (2010)

Obama has been a good President in many ways, and still has the potential to be a great one, but his continuance and expansion of the war, now across a wide swath of Africa to Asia, reveals a spiritual deficiency in the American polity. Rev. Martin Luther King’s words from the Vietnam War time are even more relevant today.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —King (1967)

References

King, Rev. Martin Luther (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Jones, Ann (2010, July 2). Counterinsurgency down for the count in Afghanistan…. Mother Jones.

“Very rigorous maritime engineering standards”

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg says that he does “care about the small people.” CEO Tony Hayward says, “I’d like my life back” (he barely had time to watch his 52-foot yacht “Bob” compete in a race off England’s coast). And to the House Oversight and Investigations sub-committee on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: “I wasn’t involved in any of the decision-making…we drill hundreds of wells around the world.”

I’ve recently learned where they’re getting their material. As John Clarke and Bryan Dawe say, the industry adheres to “very rigorous maritime engineering standards.”

Navigating the corridor of inquiry

It’s not often that I have an Aha! moment reading an academic article. Many have significant flaws and many of the best repeat what’s been said many times before. But I had a very different reaction to Patricia M. Shields’sPragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration.”

The paper shows how pragmatism as a philosophy of science is used in a research methods class. The course includes guides to writing an empirical capstone project, such as steps to follow, the notebook method, and the classification of conceptual frameworks.  But what makes it special is the explication of these in terms of their roots in the ideas of Peirce, Dewey, and James.

She quotes from William James (1904), who writes about the relation of pragmatism to theories:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work…

All these [theories], you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies… [pragmatism] stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

The paper accomplishes four major feats. First, it serves as an excellent introduction to pragmatism, articulating it in terms of actual experience and concrete action in the world, as pragmatists would have it. Second, it offers a way of thinking about research, which can help anyone who struggles with the relation between theory and practice, or gets stuck in dichotomies such as quantitative/qualitative. It show how theories can come alive, be unstiffened, so that they can help us make sense of experience without overconstraining. Third, the paper describes a creative use of an institutional repository, which helps students enter into a community of inquiry. See, for example, the excellent paper by Robert Brom (2000), Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Finally, it does a fine job of doing what it sets out to do, to describe the process of designing an excellent approach to a research methods or capstone course.

References

Brom, Robert A. (2000). Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Applied Research Projects. Paper 91.

James, William (1904, December). What is Pragmatism. From series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A new name for some old ways of thinking, from William James, Writings 1902-1920. The Library of America

Shields, Patricia M. (1998). Pragmatism as a philosophy of science: A tool for public administration. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 33.

The texture of peace

The Vision of Humanity project has just released its latest report on the “texture of peace.”

Using 24 indicators, such as a nation’s level of military expenditure, its relations with neighbors, and the respect for human rights, the report quantifies the different aspects of peacefulness. It measures peacefulness within, as well as between, nations.

Understanding the texture of peace is more useful than saying simply “at war” or “peace is good.” It helps us see that no country is totally peaceful and that degrees of peacefulness can be quantified for comparison among countries or over time. We can also see how the lack of peace has costs beyond acts of violence per se.

The report identifies some of the drivers of peace, such as levels of democracy and transparency, education, and national well being. Their data show that

[t]he most peaceful societies have higher per capita income, high levels of well-being, more freedom, perform better at sustainability, and appear to have a more equitable distribution of social spending (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2010, p. 4).

The study also examines the economic consequences of peace. One remarkable finding for 2010 is that

…had the world been at peace, world economic output might have reached US$62.4 trillion, an increase of 8.5% and easily exceeding the output losses due to the economic crisis of 2008/9… Even a reduction in levels of violence of just 15% would equal the output loss due to the economic crisis (Ibid, p. 51)

I doubt that many people who turn to violence as a solution for conflicts, or any military contractors who benefit from the lack of peace, will read this report and suddenly decide that they’re misguided. But for the rest of us, this study provides some tools to question the direction we’re going, a way to measure progress, and a way to demonstrate the consequences of violence to the economy and the quality of life.

By the way, last year I celebrated ironically the ascension of the US to #83 on the list. It’s not good for anyone that the most powerful nation on earth is ranked among countries with severe poverty, Balkan states, which are still recovering from major conflict, and former Soviet republics. This year the US has dropped to #85.

References

Institute for Economics & Peace (2010). Peace, wealth and human potential. 2010 discussion paper.

Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Technologies to improve the quality of life

Gary McDarby was one of many very impressive people I met during my stay in Ireland during 2007-08. If you watch this short video, I think you’ll understand why.

It’s amazing how he manages to introduce several important projects in a short time, including Camara, SMART, and the Computer Clubhouse.

Prepare yourself for some tears.

Gary writes:

as many of you know, on the 7th of August 2009 Stuart Mangan and Robert Stringer passed away. I had been working with Stuart on technologies to help improve his quality of life (he had suffered a severe spinal injury in 2008) and Robert Stringer had been taking a holiday after volunteering with Camara in Tanzania when he was killed. In a strange twist of fate they died on the same day.

I have been giving a series of talks on these events with the sole of intention of trying to create something positive out of what was a very sad and challenging time. First and foremost I want to pay tribute to these two wonderful young men.

Recently I gave an IGNITE talk in the Science Gallery on what happened. It’s a short, 5 minute format which is quite a challenge to do, especially if the subject matter is non trivial.

I wanted to try and create something meaningful in this short format so it could be passed around in the viral ways we are all so used to. Its by no means perfect but please feel free to pass it on. The talk is here: