Towards a general “internet theory”

I’ve just picked up Geert Lovink‘s latest book-length contribution to the debate on social media and theory, Networks Without A Cause: A Critique of Social Media. It’s extremely prescient and chimes with a load of thoughts I’ve been having around a number of issues since earlier this year (and most recently this past weekend).

I think I’ll save a more detailed analysis when I’ve read more of the book – perhaps as a sort of review using Geert’s work as a jump off point for/exposition of my own thoughts.

In the meantime I really wanted to share the final (extensive) paragraph from the book’s introduction which resonates with a number of themes I’m trying to explore and unpick for my own research. Enjoy…

“Why, after two decades, does no (general) “internet theory” exist? Are we all to blame? We need a contemporary network theory that reflects rapid changes and takes the critical and cultural dimensions of technical media seriously. Network theory still emphasizes the science-focused “unified network theory,” to paraphrase the language of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. But we cannot merely study potentiality and growth patterns as pseudo-natural phenomena. There is hope: we can revolt against the mathematical shapes of networks. Humanities should do more than describe the times we’re living in. We can match untimely aphorisms with future scenario planning, speculative thinking with data journalism, and computer programming with visual studies. The overall aim is to ignite speculative futurism and celebrate singular modes of expression rather than institutional power plays. Many want to know how networks can guarantee “trust” while remaining open, flat and democratic. How can rapidly emerging concentrations of power be counter-balanced? If networks are so distributed and decentralized in nature, then why don’t they oppose the economies of scale that produce the Googles and Facebooks?”

More at Networks Without A Cause.

Wikileaks analysis Part 1: Some notes on transparency

There's been a lot of discussion of Wikileaks and it's high-profile founder, Julian Assange, recently. Some of it tittle-tattle led mainstream news stuff, and some more reasoned critical analysis.

I've come acoss a few good blog posts that have spurred me to spend time thinking about Wikileaks and the deeper implcations the site-cum-organisation might have for contemporary media and politics. 

As often happens, my intention to post short, pithy comments in response fails and I end up postng longercomments than planned.

So I thought I'd round them up into a couple of blog posts about Wikileaks and a couple of central themes.

In this first post, I responded to a couple of big questions Jed Hallam asked about Wikileaks and its effect on transparency, particularly from the perspective of the individual.

Jed asked whether the fall-out from Wikileaks will mean that people (and I'd presume this term can apply at both a individual and collective, organisational level) start "behaving themselves [...] thus destrying any risk of being found out".

Or perhaps things will go the opposite way with people becoming "ultra-concerned about their privacy" online as possibly evidence by phenomena such as whitewalling (amply demonstrated by Drew)

FInally, Jed asked whether "the world will totally change and people will become totally relaxed about who they are and what they do – every tweet and Facebook update will become accountable for and Eric Schmidt will die a happy man."

I argued that we'll end up with a mixture of two and three. There's a possiblility Julian Assange will see the effects of his "secrecy tax" come to fruition but I'm not too sure in my comment:

Yes, people can leak documents on the web. But they have to get them first. Geert Lovink’s 10 Theses on Wikileaks is relevant here as he makes the claim that Wikileaks only offers a quantitative difference to existing whistle-blowing, not a qualitative one.

Plus, Wikileaks is the antithesis of transparency. We don’t know if the leaks are accurate or planted. Nor do we know how WLs operates, how it chooses or edits material, for example.

Secondly, how likely in realist terms will it be for the government or state or even corporations to become ‘squeaky clean’ in case they’re exposed?

Cory Doctorow wrote a great Comment is Free piece after the G20 protests in London where crowd-sourced citizen journalism content exposed police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson, despite their initial flat denials.

Doctorow argued that transparency is nothing unless justice is done. What happened next? The policeman in question was acquitted and faced no further charges.

Transparency in this context only *reinforces* the feeling of disempowerment, helplessness and frustration with existing power.

WIll the US will clean up its military and diplomatic procedures as a result of Wikileaks?

Sadly, I think not. Although I do agree the web will demand some changes at the edges of organisational behaviour, it will outdone by a reliance on information management – both internally and externally – rather than drive significant – and certainly ethical – changes to corporate and organisational behaviour.

For example, the media were circulated D-Notices ahead of the #Cablegate release so it’s very possible what gets reported in the press is still only half the story – and what I’ve read so far isn’t really “news” (e.g. middle eastern leaders wanted to invade Iran (Shock!) and the US urged diplomats to spy on UN members?

Hardly ground-breaking when it was reported years ago that MI6 is/was actively spying on UN delegates.)

I do however, agree, that the web may well change the ability of governments/states and corporations to censor information (Trafigura was a good case in point from a corporate perspective) but of course, all governments and states need to do is move up the food-chain and start blocking/censoring the source of information.

See this very recent story of the UK police applying direct to Nominet to gain take down powers for websites engaged in “criminal activity” as a perfect example.

Of course, criminal activity is subjective but I would imagine that as long as websites are engaged in publishing harmless entertainment they'll be fine.

Which leads me to your third proposition. I agree…. people are ncreasingly opening up and putting more and more personal information online.

And at a day-to-day level I like this idea. I do believe it will force the public and private sector to adopt similar approaches and further push transparency as a tool/outcome to a certain degree.

But equally, I don’t think this will ultimately make for a more equal or even balance of power. The use and abuse of this by corporations, governments and states will no doubt over-ride any greater benefit for the greater good. The Cybernetic Hypothesis has more to say about this.

And this, I think, might bring us full circle.

The digital industry must act now to stop the Digital Economy Bill

The way the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was created by Lord Mandelson and the music industry was  staggering in its audacity and truly disgusting. There was no attempt to veil the fact that the legislation was patently designed to protect the content industries; support executive salaries (and don’t for one second think that this will protect artists’ revenues. It doesn’t and it won’t) and insulate industrial busienss models form the creativity and innovation opened up by the Internet. It was also clear that the Bill would directly impact on citizens and consumers’ personal freedom and rights.

Outstandingly, as this vile piece of legislation has passed through the democratic process (and having been party to some of the to-ing and fro-ing of amendments in the Lords, I use that term loosely) the application of corrupt, money-driven, corporate, executive-serving self-interest has reached even loftier heights of shame.

I won’t dwell on the passion Lord Mandelson has shown in seeking to drive the Bill through the Commons without democratic debate; nor the disgusting collusion shown by all mainstream parties to date in order to gratify big business by preventing a debate; not even the appalling silence from both my own MP, Stewart Jackson, and Lord Clement Jones, who tabled a catastrophic amendment in the Lords at the behest of his content producing clients for at his firm DLA Piper. Without any doubt he is truly a vile, greed-obsessed man more passionate about protecting his client’s interests and his personal wealth than individual, human right.

Instead I want to call on my friends and peers that work in the digital and technology industries and issue a call to action: stand up for democracy; stand up against authoritarian, corporate-driven legislation; stand up for what is right.

The effects of the Digital Economy Bill as it stands will have serious implications for everyone. Us digital media types won’t be able to stop off at a café for a coffee and check our emails because free, open wifi will be shut off. Our children won’t be able to do their homework or learn about the wonders of the wider world because the household has been disconnected without evidence after someone has been suspected of 'illegally' sharing a large file.

But simply, if the Digital Economy Bill is passed we'll be faced with a bleak future where the stupefied consumers of Huxley’s Brave New World are now being shown the Orwell 1984 treatment.

Please. Please. Please. Act NOW before it is too late. Wake up from your stupefaction and do something:

Is this what cutting edge Internet and government research looks like in the UK?

Egov screenshot

Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in edemocracy, politics and the internet. In fact I'd go as far as to say I'm passionate about the ways in which social media and the internet ca be used to empower individuals and government to make our lives and the world around us a better place.

With this in mind you can imagine my excitement to see via Twitter that two towering forces of academia, Oxford University's Internet Institute and London School of Economics Public Policy Group had launched a website, Government on the Web, dedicated to:

"improving knowledge and understanding of e-government and the impact of web-based technologies on government"

"Awesome", I thought. An online repository for research, case studies, practical guides, etc.

Imagine my horror to see the site that has been developed. Take a look at the screenshot above. Yes. That's it. No, I've not searched the Way Back Machine.  That site was designed, built and published *last week*.

I won't list all the failings here – there's too many and it's too mean. But, holy crap, is this representative of the cutting-edge research being done by teams of UK experts in the field? Wow.

Back in 2007 I went to a one-day conference exploring the future of media at Goldsmith's University and blogged that the experience left me feeling that a lot of UK academics don't yet get social media.

Two years on and this site doesn't fill me with much hope that things have changed. The Oxford Internet Institute is twinned with Harvard's Berkman Center? Home to Doc Searls' and his ground-breaking work into VRM. But looking at this site you wouldn't get that impression.

I'll say it again for added emphasis: Wow. Really.

 

Pros and cons of peer production in a nutshell

It's been a bit quiet around here lately. My apologies.

I've just discovered a rather interesting looking publication [pdf] from RAND Europe on the Future of the Internet Economy (via Ian Brown) and although I haven't read it all yet I came across a rather nice meaty section that spells out some of the pros and cons of using commons-based peer production to co-create knowledge and other informational public goods.

I thought I'd save it here for future reference and sharing:

Governments may also find that opening up their processes, sharing public information, and actively engaging citizens to take an interest in the public (virtual and real) space leads to ownership and shared responsibilities.

An important value will be how responsibility is allocated and assumed, and how accountability is established in a time where processes become collective endeavours. Mass collaboration and voluntary agreements provide good approaches for innovative development processes, drawing on the knowledge and talent of many.

However they lack effective decision making capabilities, quality control and the endorsement (certification) of the outcomes, thus potentially leading to instability and uncertainty about the quality and value of the process outputs. Peer review, ranking, karma points and the like, are expected to fulfil some of this function but are easy to manipulate and are not evidence based.

**UPDATED** Ofcom: remind me what it’s for again?

I'm sorry. What's the point of Ofcom again? I'm sure it plays a valuable role regulating something but it seriously doesn't get the internet does it?

I am blown away by the sheer mind-numbing stupidity of today's report (which the BBC seems to be slavishly re-gurgitating without question.

According to Ofcom, the UK is one of the "world's most advanced countries in terms of digital communications". Why might you ask? Is it because we amazing broadband speeds? Is it because we have cloud wifi covering major cities?

No. It is because – and prepare yourselves for this – we, as a nation:

  • spend more time watching TV than other countries
  • send more texts than other countries
  • leads the world in online advertising (WTF??)

This blows me away. It really does. Call me a cynic but the reasons given hardly amount to anything substantial or even coherent (texts,TV, online ads?).

But what if you were a government trying to push through an insanely authoritarian bill that will curtail free, public use of the internet. You might want to convince the public that Britain is a great digital nation, thus giving the impression they can be trusted to make the right decisions.

It's not as if the report is independent. It's by Ofcom, a government body. The same body who will likely gets lots of money and power from enforcing the draconian laws in Peter Mandelson and the music industry's  Digital Economy Bill.

Sorry to harp on, but the report (or at least the BBC's coverage of it) sounds hollow. While it may be purely coincidence, given the nightmare of Mandelson's Digital Economy Bill which will certainly push us down any real global measure of 'digitalness' I can't help wonder if the two are connected.

**UPDATE** The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones tells me via Twitter that it's a just "a bunch of stats" Ofcom release every year. So it's more likely that it's a crappy news angle for a press release rather than anything sinister.

Mandelson’s Digital Economy Bill will switch off public wifi

Another amazing and appalling consequence of the Digital Economy Bill has been unearthed by the Open Rights Group (ORG) and it's digital law team.

In a blog post analysing the detail of the Bill it seems that anyone offering wifi will held accountable if someone uses it to illegally download files. This means they'll face criminal proceedings and disconnection.

From the ORG blog:

"An end to internet cafes and shared networks

The Bill appears to impose obligations on account holders for the
behaviour of other users. This will adversely affect many businesses
and stop the many people who currently extend their access to the
internet to people in their community."

Take action now to prevent this from becoming a reality.

This is an important announcement…

Those that know me may be surprised that I haven't yet blogged about the government's appalling behaviour to take a fat wad of cash from the music industry in return for turning a blind eye to the amazing power the internet is bringing every facet of humankind and instead amending British law so that we can all take a giant leap backwards in terms of digital rights.

This is purely done to ensure that the UK's moronic entertainment industry executives get to keep their fucking enormous salaries until they retire, upon when they can also cash in their even more enormous fucking pensions.

But that's not all: in case the government wasn't sure that this is a totally fucking stupid idea that might cost them votes, they're also criminalising young people (some might say the electorate of the future), potentially breaching individuals' universal human rights and into the bargain Lord Mandelson has also opted to award himself the personal power to amend copyright laws willy-nilly with the barest minimum of parliamentary oversight.

This (and a whole lot more evilness, such as the loss of free public wifi) is wrapped up in a nifty Bill announced in last month's Queen's Speech called the Digital Economy Bill.

If you want the biggest, most hilarious of laughs, take a look at what I predicted and indeed hoped might be in the Bill when the initial consultation phase was announced last year.

Here's what really happened:

  1. Lord Carter appointed to consult on Digital Britain 
  2. Lord Carter speaks with various people and turnsout a not-perfect but very respectable white paper
  3. Lord Carter moves on
  4. Digital Britain progresses
  5. Lord Mandelson meets David Geffen and host of other music industry chiefs
  6. Lord Mandelson reverses pretty much everything that made sense in the original white paper and announces plans to turn himself into the Digital Witchfinder General

Your help is needed…

Here's what you can do now to help:

  1. Join the Open Rights Group (disc: I'm on the board) to help them lobby for sanity to be amended back into the bill and protect your future online rights
  2. Sign the Downing Street petition, signed by the likes of Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, and loads others
  3. Adopt your MP to make sure they know about the insanity of what the Digital Economy Bill will inflict on the public

We need your help *NOW* – Mandelson is adamant that the Bill gets passed before they lose the chance to fuck us all up by shutting down the internet. Please take on one of the actions aboce and help spread the word by Tweeting, emailing or Facebooking this post.

Thank you.

EXCLUSIVE: Dick Fedorcio, Met Police blogger engagement and my part in it…

 

G20 officer hides badge

I published a blog post earlier this year in which I questioned the Metropolitan Police's approach to social media and criticised what I perceived to be the wrong organisational attitude.

Rather than looking to embrace social media, listen, adapt and respond to the public and earn the reputation it deserves, comments made by the Met's Director of External Affairs, Dick Fedoricio, in a PR Week interview suggested otherwise:

"If I was seeking to
manipulate people, it would raise a question about how that reduced our
integrity. To be leaning on someone to say "give us a good blog" starts
to raise some ethical issues.
"

I wanted to return to this issue for a couple of reasons. Primarily, I was shocked (but unsurprised) to see that according the Evening Standard, the Met has now requested that all imagery of its officers hiding or obscuring their badges be removed from photo libraries and image databases (hiding numbers means officers can't be (easily) identified and is an illegal tactic usually performed to allow police to act with impunity while committing – often violent – offences against the public).

While the Standard accuses the Met of trying to "re-write history", a member of the public gets it right in a comment posted on the story:

"If people start uploading such images to Facebook and Twitter, will
they get their collars felt? We seem to be heading in that direction."

Leaving aside the jusdgement of which direction society is heading, the issue of whether material incriminating authorities published publicly in the social web can be removed remains – as does the question: what power do authorities have to, in DIck's words, "manipulate" or "lean on" someone to force removal?

Following the G20 the Met has signed up 6Consulting and Radian6 to run social media monitoring for the force so it's very likely that any 'offending' material will certainly be identified. That said, I return to the point I made originally which was that this approach reveals a traditional command and control communications culture at the Met which will not fit in the distributed, complex, networked world in which we now live.

I mentioned there were a couple of reasons I wanted to blog about this topic again. That's the first, the second is much more personal.

After my previous post in which the Met's Dick Fedorcio told PR Week that he will "not go as far as interacting with bloggers" he went right ahead by 'interacting' with me.

So how did he interact with me? Was it a comment left on my blog post examining the Met's approach to social media? Was it an email explaining the Met's decision not to interact with bloggers? 

No. Instead Dick left me a voicemail on my work phone. Why he phoned me at work I don't know (especially given my blog states clearly it's a personal site and encourages contact via my personal email address).

Dick's voicemail was rather aggressive (I'm sure this was unintentional) and stated that he worked for Scotland Yard (again, this is confusing, but I'm sure he meant the Metropolitan Police).

He advised me, in a rather intimidating fashion, that if I planned on blogging about the Met againI  should give him a call in advance.

Now I'm sure Dick meant only well by his inadvertently aggressive and intimidating phonecall advising I seek permission before blogging about the Met, but it seems clear to me that the Met are doing blogger engagement, despite what they tell PR Week.

Plus ca change…

Technorati tags: Dick Fedorcio, Metropolitan Police, blogger engagement

Three quarters of people would switch to alternative free news if Rupert Murdoch has his way

Pcuk-harris-poll-paid-content-reader-intentions-o

Since Murdoch made his announcement about pushing for pay-walled content on his titles there's been a lot of discussion about how the future of online content is 'paid for'.

Well, frankly I don't buy it (literally) and thankfully PaidContent:UK has come up with some research that proves the wider public also don't want to buy it either.

According to a write up in the Guardian, PaidContent's research shows that

If … favourite news site begins charging for access to content, three quarters of people would simply switch to an alternative free news source…
  • Just 5% of those readers would choose to pay to continue reading the site.
  • 8% would continue reading the site's free headlines only.
  • 12% of respondents are not sure what they would do.

I really hope this is an accurate representation of how the battle for paid for vs free content plays out.

The risk, of course, is that several major news sources follow Murdoch into paid-for content limiting the offering of free content.

But then I suppose that's why Murdoch and his minions/family are targeting the BBC so vehemently. As long as the BBC continues to serve up quality news courtesy of the license fee then surely his paid-for business model fails.

But then thinking about it, even if Murdoch succeeds in getting the mainstream BBC locked up, what happens to BBC World Service. It's 100% funded by the British Government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office – so surely this outlet will continue to deliver quality, state-sponsored broadcasting?

Tags: paidcontent, Rupert Murdoch, BBC