Category Archives: Policy

What I’ve been up to (Status presentation to Network of Excellence Working Groups – Torino, Sept 2012)

I’m in Torino, Italy for a project meeting of the Standards, Regulation and Governance working group of the European Network of Excellence on Internet Science. We were asked to highlight what we’ve been working on as part of the project, and so I came up with a few highlights of the things I’ve done and will keep on doing as part of the project.

1. Open Internet

a. I’ve given a series of talks on the notion of the ‘open internet’ and how the architecture and standards of mobile devices differs.

b. I’m going to be working more on this in the next year or so, focusing on the social significance of differing standards for mobile and ‘wired’ internet access technologies.

2. Standards and Legal Frameworks for Open Hardware

a. In March, I presented a summary of a few different legal approaches to open hardware, at the Open Rights Group’s OrgCon, as part of a discussion with legal expert Andrew Katz. There is audio here, as part of documentation taken by spaceBench.

b. I’m taking an updated version of the discussion document/presentation to the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki.

c. I published a paper in Media, Culture and Society (ironically, a closed source journal; the next one will be open source, I promise):

Democratizing production through open source knowledge: from open software to open hardware

which looks at how commercial success is one of the ways that the impact of open source software is considered (here’s one of many examples)

The paper is based on some in-depth work with the Open Hardware and Design Alliance (here we are in Bergen, Norway running a workshop)

I’ll be continuing to work on updating the list of relevant standards, situating the debates within the current literature on standards.

3. Internet Activism

a. I’m working on a paper attempting to assess the impact of online activism against the SOPA/PIPA laws, looking at how the language used in mass media illustrates the influence of the campaigns.

b. This paper follows on from a paper on WikiLeaks I presented last year, a version of which appears in a nice book edited by Ian Brown called Research Handbook on Governance of the Internet.

4. Baby H!

I’m still on maternity leave until November, but after that will be concentrating even harder on these big questions. . . .

#FAIL – investigating failure at the ISDT summer school

I’m here in lovely Porto, Portugal, as faculty at the annual Gary Chapman International School on Digital Transformation, run by the University of Texas at Austin. The week’s summer school discusses the relationships between media technologies and social transformation. For my contribution this morning, I decided to focus on the concept of failure in community technology projects. There is a summary here, or read on below.

Community tech projects are often set up as alternatives to the increasingly corporatized and enclosed internet, either as modes of providing alternative access to the internet in areas where it is not available, or as alternative intranets to connect communities to themselves. They have a variety of different expectations that can be attached to them, including expected augmentations of:

Citizen Engagement
Alternative Technology
Policy Challenge/New modes of Governance
Enterprise and business

But most of these projects fail. So what can we learn from this?

First, that many of our existing frameworks for failure are pretty boring. For the most part, innovation literature considers failure in terms of how useful it can be for progress. Either something fails, and we can dismiss it, or it provides some new idea that allows for future innovation. There are several frameworks for this, including the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ where something new disrupts the status quo, or the idea of paradigm shift, where a failure in one system introduces a new mode of thinking.

But this linear idea about failure doesn’t do much. In reality, things aren’t so transparent. Some things fail in ways that actually have more impact than if they had succeeded.  Case in point: community wireless networks often started out hoping to bridge the digital divide. But many of them contributed more by reforming radio spectrum laws.

I decided to come up with a new taxonomy for these kinds of opaque, rather than transparent, failures. I thought that it should include not just the stated goals of projects, but the unstated goals as well. In addition – I thought about short term and long term outcomes, policy implications (intended or not), structures of participation (elite, grassroots, techie, scale), technological imperative, civic/community/noncommercial implications. I asked the ISDT group to brainstorm a variety of failures to think about how they fit into that taxonomy. Some of the projects cited (and debated) were: Haystack, One Laptop Per Child, Red Hat, Mozilla, and community projects ranging from community food banks to global mobilization movements.

Failure needs to be redefined.  It’s not always a total #FAIL. We can learn from failure. A project that has “failed” many can lead to new design methods. We need to learn from designers and think about how to iterate projects, but also how to consider the effective (and affective) use of technology – and who gains power from technology projects.



The Internet in Egypt – and the P2P alternatives

Last year I attended the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt.  It was my first high-level international meeting, and I was shocked at what I perceived to be the lip service paid to openness and transparency, while all around was the experience of a repressive regime – armed police, walled compounds topped with barbed wire, security theatre at every door.  A controversy about a poster mentioning Chinese internet censorship.

One of my other memories was of the Egyptian First Lady Mrs Murabak usurping part of the IGF program to advance a personal interest in child safety that some delegates saw as a way of justifying limiting internet access in that country.

I came away from the meeting feeling rather depressed about the usefulness of these meetings for negotiating a global platform for free and open communication.

It seems my feelings were not unfounded.  As more and more Egyptians are joining demonstrations against Mr Murabak, Egypt has left the internet:  as James Cowie notes, “the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.”

The protests will continue, of course.  But without as much freedom of speech for those in the streets, and without as much information for them about what the rest of the world sees.

What this also tells us is that the internet transformation into centralized infrastructure is complete.  It is now possible for a government to close down the internet for an entire country.  The promise of democratic distributed networks, remnants of which were being quibbled over at the IGF meeting in Sharm, has now been largely replaced by the reality of national-level routing by national ISPs. The myth of the internet as the de facto platform for citizen communication has been usurped by the reality of commercial platforms and ISPs subject to local laws and thus to local strictures.

Maybe it’s time now to think again about autonomous infrastructure. Since the 1950s and 1960s radio hams maintained a parallel network of radio communications in many countries, using frequency bands set aside for amateur use.  Community Wi-Fi networks have developed peer-to-peer networking systems that allow computers to communicate with each other over the air, and these ad-hoc networks are increasingly possible on mobile devices.  From past to future, all of these possibilities provide alternative means of distributing information among a public in times of crisis.

This is not to say that having a ham radio network or developing mobile handsets so they can more easily form an ad-hoc network will in itself compensate for the removal of an entire country from the world’s communication network.  Removing Egypt from the internet is a clear effort by the government to remove international oversight from today’s activities, as well as cutting off its citizens from each other.  It is only to underline that there are other means for publics to be formed, as as the internet comes increasingly to resemble a mass media behemoth, we might want to return our attention to them.

Starving the Future

 I walked in the largest “student” protest in generations yesterday.  Around 50,000 people walked through central London. Although we walked peacefully, I suspect that many people carrying signs and filling the streets were angry.  Some were angry about having to go into debt to get a university degree, some were angry at having voted for an unbreakable promise that was broken, and some, like me, were angry because government, the one we voted for, has starved the future.

Cutting core funding to education eliminates one of the key investments in future innovation and economic growth.  Like funding to the arts, in the short term education funding creates jobs and promotes sectoral growth, but in the long term it also contributes to better decisionmaking, governance, and economic and political strategy.

The anger shared by the thousands of protesters and perhaps even the hundreds that engaged in civil disobedience can be generalized as anger at starving the future.  ‘Austerity’ measures suffered more by the vulnerable are saddening, but even more so when presented with the government’s seeming lack of hope or enthusiasm for the future.  Without investment in education, who will think?  Who will lead?  Who will decide?  Will these core social values be privileges accorded only to the financial and social elite?

If not, social action might be necessary — as  K-Punk notes,

 “This is definitely not the time to recline into the leftist version of capitalist realism, the defeatist counterpart to the Bullingdon club’s bullishness. Now is the time to organise and agitate. The cuts can provide a galvanising focus for an anti-capitalist campaign that can succeed. Protests in these conditions won’t have the hubristic impotence of anti-capitalist ‘feelgood feelbad’ carnivals and kettles. This is shaping up to be a bitter struggle, but there are specific, determinate and winnable goals that can be achieved here: it isn’t a question of taking a peashooter to the juggernaut of capital.”

In other words, it’s time to fight for the future.

Policy-based Evidence-making

Like many of my colleagues across the UK, I’ve been in a state of shock for the past few weeks, reeling from the proposals in the Browne report for the massive restructuring of academia, which includes shifting education from being funded as public good, with benefits accruing to society as a whole, to being funded as a market, where students act as rational consumers and “competition drives quality.”

Beyond the fact that this strategy is weak and technocentric, as John Naughton suggests, it is also problematic in another way.  We KNOW that public goods do not accrue using the logic of the market.  We KNOW that students don’t act as rational consumers.  Thus, this is a proposal made entirely on ideology, not on evidence.

This means that instead of making evidence-based policy, we are going to start seeing policy-based evidence.  In a mad rush to make reality conform to narrow assumptions, it’s quite likely that the actual benefits of public education will stop being measured.  Society won’t just be weaker and thinner, we won’t necessarily even know about it.

History provides numerous lessons about how tenacious policy-based evidence-making can be.  For example, Marilyn Waring has proven that economic success (even of developed nations) has depended on unpaid labour, often done by women.  She calls the systematic lack of measurement of this labour the “patriarchal economic paradigm.”

Canada’s census will stop measuring unpaid labour, under new rules made by its Conservative government.  In a Toronto Star article, Waring comments on this decision:

“I see this mirrored in so many conservative governments in the post-recession period,’’ says Waring. “They want to rule according to ideology not according to evidence. So one of the most important things they can do is to obliterate evidence so they can operate on the basis of propaganda.’’

From higher education to labour force statistics, the public is going to have to start paying attention.  All governments would like to make decisions based only on their ideologies.  But responsible ones use evidence to check that ideology and prevent it from having too much influence.  Beware of policy-based evidence-making.

The Royal Mail Internet? Ofcom and Postcomm merge

This morning the UK government published the Postal Services Bill, which details how the regulatory authority for the postal sector has been transferred to Ofcom.  The joint statement from the two agencies blandly notes that the two regulators are working together to ensure continuity in their regulatory activities.

But how, exactly?  As governments around the world have noticed by separating postes and telecoms (although some anachronisms remain)  communications systems have not been similar to postal systems for over a century (let’s say, since the telegraph).  Converged media in the Internet age is no Royal Mail.

Given that the government MUST know this, I can only conclude that saddling Ofcom with an unrelated set of regulatory duties is a preliminary action in advance of winding down the entire regulator.  And then what?  The government may want perfect deregulation, but radio spectrum allocation, network neutrality and citizen’s rights to communicate (not to mention broadcast content !) will not manage themselves.

UPDATE! It appears that one of the functions that will be changed is the review by Ofcom of Channel 3 TV licenses – so effectively removing the public service broadcast requirement and allowing the Minister of Culture much more direct control over new TV licenses.  Though I’m no broadcast TV expert, this deregulation agenda seems quite similar to that of the USA in the 1990s . . . which led to more media consolidation, rather than a diversity of voices.

Internet at Liberty

I’m in Budapest at the invitation of Central European University and Google, at a conference of activists called “Internet at Liberty.” The conference features discussions about the possibilities and limits of free speech on the internet. Given its main sponsors and its topic, I wanted to think carefully about how the conference was positioning both the internet and -because it’s such a weighty term – liberty.

First, liberty comes across as being about liberal democracy and economic liberalization. These are connected in the internet space: liberal democracy underpins the development of the internet as a medium and as a (commercial) platform, and the development (democratization) agenda of the United States in the world.  Sami Ben Gharbia has an interesting perspective on this.

So it makes sense for Google as a commercial entity that depends on a liberalized regulatory framework, that has a reputation at stake as a progressive company, to fund an event like this. Google’s market expands when internet content is not blocked, and the company has an interest in supporting free expression – as evidenced by their recent action in China.

But the focus on liberty and American-style freedom of expression are linked to economic liberalization as well. They should remind us that libertarian and liberal politics are not the only means by which media is democratized – or for that matter, potentially regulated.

Liberal views of power normally see power struggles as being about obvious struggles – people not getting what they say they want. But there are other views of power that see greater importance in t is NOT being disucssed. As media scholars know, what gets left off the agenda is as important as what issues are directly introduced. Here are a few things I thought were missing from the first day of Internet at Liberty:

    1. It took most of the day to start talking about privacy online – which is significant because privacy and anonymity is essential for gaining control of one’s expression.

    2.More importantly, not a lot of discussion about the infrastructure level of access. The discussion of freedom was not all that much about the design of the internet. This is signficant in two ways: one, a certain amount of autonomy and control over the structure and function of our media, and two: the convergence of media practices across internet and mobile services. Google, remember, published a policy paper this summer with mobile operator Verizon that stipulated that mobile operators could prioritize services and block others without being subject to any provisions that protect net neutrality in the “wired” internet.

However, there was a significant amount of discussion about media platforms – Facebook and Google. This is both encouraging and distressing. Encouraging because it created a real dialogue about technological choices and user autonomy when using these platforms, and distressing because it reiterated to me that these corporate-owned platforms are now the main way that people experience interactive media. They are, essentially, the infrastructure. And thus, real media democracy would involve appropriate governance of them. But unlike the public internet or other media, there is no opportunity for governance.

These lapses, and this shift of interactive media towards free services that make money by mining social connections raises bigger questions about power, and who gets to ask what kinds of questions. Working from the title of the conference, liberty itself becomes more complex. Indeed, it is possible to have both positive and negative liberty. Much of the discussion has been about negative liberty – the lack of barriers, especially to free speech. Activists and politicos talked about the right not to have blogs and speech blocked, and urged companies and governments to remove these impediments. But POSITIVE liberty, at least as far as Isaiah Berlin is concerned, is the right to have control over your life. This includes the right to communicate, the right to establish your platform for expression, and the right to live your life as you please (which includes the right to privacy)

We didn’t talk much about positive rights in the conference. Maybe because positive rights pose a real struggle for regulators and for the development of the internet. Regulation is often couched in ideas of negative liberty. Something more radical – governance? – might take a broader view of power. This would require a better understanding of how people negotiate the terms under which they communicate

This is where I think the philosophical questions have real pragmatic importance. If the only thing we can do to negotiate our stake and our right to communicate is to complain about Facebook terms of service, we have lost our positive rights. Real liberty is having a stake in how we communicate.

The Future of Community Wi-Fi – you’ll have to buy a coffee

Back in the day, we shared Wi-Fi.  We kept our connections open, and imagined that this would be a way to get to know our neighbours, or to build community.  So excited were we that Sociable Design created a “Wi-Fi Thank You.” to start making some of those connections between people connected in the ether. Cities and governments came up with ways of sharing Wi-Fi too:  it spawned a whole industry in the United States (and more than a few PhD theses).  We scholars came up with models to describe how this sharing could define Wi-Fi as a public good – as a communications infrastructure that didn’t have to be privately owned and that would benefit a broad range of citizens.

But it would appear that the days of sharing are numbered.  Ofcom’s “Online Infringement of
Copyright and the Digital Economy Act 2010” makes people who share Wi-Fi liable for any copyright infringement on their network, as PCPro reports today.  The Act states,

“We consider that a person or an undertaking receiving an internet access service for its own purposes is a subscriber, even if they also make access available to third parties.”

These rules make anyone who shares, liable for copyright infringment – potentially to the tune of £250,000.00.  Heavy legal provisions have already made community Wi-Fi projects dry up and disappear in France, and in Germany Wi-Fi must be locked by law.  So much for the internet as a public good!

So, what to do?  Well, Ofcom’s consultation is open until June 10, so you can submit a response . . .

Or, you could follow the letter of the law.  The proposed act states that if Wi-Fi is provided along with another good or service, the provider is considered to be an ISP – and the Act’s provisions don’t apply to ISPs with fewer than 400,000 customers.  That means hotel lobbies and coffee shops aren’t considered as individual subscribers – because there’s a financial transaction somewhere. By my reckoning, we don’t normally pay for public goods. But maybe the cup of coffee could be really, really cheap – so cheap, we’d still be sharing.

Mind the Gaps? Connecting UK Digital Advocates

Politicians have failed us: that seems to be the consensus after last week’s Digital Economy Bill fiasco. So now what? The social media sphere is still buzzing, and the Open Rights Group has experienced a surge in membership. Their web forums are beginning to identify opportunities for local campaigns. There is increasing acknowlegement that digital rights issues are fundamental to democracy, and that the interests of rightsholders whose business models depend on exclusion of access should not trump the communication rights of innocent individuals. Yet much remains to be done to capitalize on these opportunities to galvanize digital democracy. The UK is the site of much innovation in democratic social media from mysociety’s TheyWorkForYou which connects Hansard data to voters by location, to more mundane (but essential) projects like CTC’s FillThatHole which allows you to report dangerous potholes. But there’s still a risk that all of this innovation is contributing to an echo chamber.

I will be commenting on the Digital Economy Bill wash-up vote and the risks and benefits of social media democratic action as part of a virtual panel organized by Christian Sandvig for the HASTAC conference held online from April 15-17. Check out the conference and the panel, and please share your comments and thoughts.

I’m also interested, in a more scholarly way, in how all of this advocacy fits together. As anyone who studies social movements knows, digitally-organized coalition and issue based movements risk propagating “electronic panics.” Not only that, but coalition members may have to focus on narrowly shared goals and step carefully around issues where they don’t agree. I’ll be exploring how this works with UK PrivacyOS workshop in Oxford this week, digging down into the relationship between privacy and Net Neutrality advocacy. These both seem like especially niche areas, but I’m hoping that understanding their relationship can help to model other ways of connecting advocates at this especially important time.

Digital Economy Bill’s passage shows gap between politics and politicians

The Digital Economy Bill passed last night.  As thousands watched on the BBC, most MPs skipped the debate, which was over in two hours.  And despite 20,000 letters being sent and nearly 25,000 tweets encouraging MPs to submit this bill to rigorous debate, only 227 of the 647 MPs voted (see a great stats mashup here).  The bill was washed into the House of Lords this afternoon.

This situation exposes the rift between politics and politicians.  The bill was broadly debated and discussed by internet researchers, lawyers, advocates – even the British Library had a consultation on proposals to make providers of free WiFi networks liable for copyright infringements undertaken on their networks.  Deliberative democracy was in full force.  But the politicians fell down on the job – with, perhaps, the exception of MP Tom Watson, who has become a minor Internet celebrity for consulting his constituents’ remarks on his Twitter feed during the debate.

This could well be the political crisis that pushes for democratic reform in the UK.  At the very least, as several commentators point out, it demonstrates that social media is transforming politics, and also that digital rights issue impact more people than just the tech community: poorly thought out legislation on disconnection could impact public institutions like the British Library, as well as small businesses.  As the election campaign starts again, let’s hope that politicians can get back in touch with politics.