Tag Archives: internet

The End of the World: The State vs. the Internet

Last weekend at FooCamp, I co-hosted a session titled “The End of the World: Will the Internet Destroy the State, or Will the State Destroy the Internet?” What follows are the ideas I opened with during my intro to the session and some additional thoughts I’ve had and that others shared during the conversation. To avoid some confusion, I’d also like to clarify a) I don’t claim that these questions have never been raised before, I mostly hope that this framing can generate useful thought and debate; and b) that I don’t believe these are the only two or three possible outcomes; it was just a interesting way of framing some poles so as to generate good conversation.

Introduction

A while back, I thought I saw a tweet from Evgeny Morozov that said something to the effect: “You don’t just go from printing press to Renaissance to iPad; there are revolutions and wars in between you can’t ignore.” Since I can’t find the tweet, maybe he didn’t say it or I imagined it… but it sparked a line of thinking.

Technology and Change

Most often, when people think of the printing press, they think of its impact on the Catholic Church – about how it enabled Martin Luther’s complaints to go viral and how the localization of the Bible cut out the need of the middle man the priest to connect and engage with God. But if the printing press undermined the Catholic Church, it had the opposite impact on the state. To be fair, heads of state took a beating (see French Revolution et al.), but the state itself was nimbler and made good use of the technology. Indeed, it is worth noting that the modern notion of the nation state was not conceivable without the printing press. The press transformed the state – scaling up its capacity to demand control over loyalty from citizens and mobilize resources which, in turn, had an impact on how states related (and fought) with one another.

In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson outlined how the printing press allowed the state to standardize language and history. In other words, someone growing up in Marseilles 100 years before the printing press probably had a very different sense of history and spoke a markedly different dialect of French than someone living in Paris during the same period. But the printing press (and more specifically, those who controlled it) allowed a dominant discourse to emerge (in this case, likely the Parisian one). Think standardized dictionaries, school textbooks and curricula, to say nothing of history and entertainment. This caused people who might never have met to share a common imagined history, language and discourse. Do not underestimate the impact this had on people’s identity. As this wonderful quote from the book states: “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” In other words, states could now fully dispense with feudal middle managers and harness the power of larger swaths of population directly – a population that might never actually meet, but could nonetheless feel connected to one another. The printing press thus helped create the modern nation state by providing a form of tribalism at scale: what we now call nationalism. This was, in turn, an important ingredient for the wars that dominated the late 19th and early 20th century – think World War I and World War II. This isn’t to say without the printing press, you don’t get war – we know that isn’t true – but the type of total war between 20th century nation states does have a direct line to the printing press.

So yes, the techno-utopian world of: printing press -> Renaissance -> iPad is not particularly accurate.

What you do get is: printing press -> Renaissance -> state evolution -> destabilization of international order -> significant bloodshed -> re-stabilization of international system -> iPad.

I raise all this because if this is the impact the printing press had on the state, it begs a new question: What will be the impact of the internet on the state? Will the internet be a technology the state can harness to extract more loyalty from its citizens… or will the internet destroy the imagined communities that make the state possible, replaced by a more nimble, disruptive organization better able to survive the internet era?

Some Scenarios

Note: again, these scenarios aren’t absolutes or the only possibilities, they are designed to raise questions and provoke thinking.

The State Destroys the Internet

One possibility is that the state is as adaptive as capitalism. I’m always amazed at how capitalism has evolved over the centuries. From mercantilism to free market to social market to state capitalism, as a meme it readily adapts  to new environments. One possibility is that the state is the same – sufficiently flexible to adapt to new conditions. Consequently, one can imagine that the state grabs sufficient control of the internet to turn it into a tool that at best enhances – and at worst, doesn’t threaten – citizens’ connection to it. Iran, with its attempt to build a state-managed internal network that will allow it to closely monitor its citizens’ every move, is a scary example of the former. China – with its great firewall – may be an example of the latter. But one not need pick on non-western states.

And a networked world will provide states – especially democratic ones – with lots of reasons to seize greater control of their citizens’ lives. From organized crime, to  terrorism, to identity theft, governments find lots of reasons to monitor their citizens. This is to say nothing of advanced persistent threats which create a state of continual online warfare – or sort of modern day phoney phishy war – between China, the United States, Iran and others. This may be the ultimate justification.

Indeed, as a result of these threats, the United States already has an extensive system for using the internet to monitor its own citizens and even my own country – Canada – tried to pass a law last year to significantly ramp up the monitoring of citizens online. The UK, of course, has just proposed a law whose monitoring provisions would make any authoritarian government squeal with glee. And just last week we found out that the UK government is preparing to cut a blank check for internet service providers to pay for installing the monitoring systems to record what its citizens do online.

Have no doubts, this is about the state trying to ensure the internet serves – or at least doesn’t threaten – its interests.

This is sadly, the easiest future to imagine since it conforms with the world we already know – one where states are ascendant. However, this future represents, in many ways, a linear projection of the future – and our world, especially our networked world, rarely behaves in a linear fashion. So we should be careful about confusing familiarity with probability.

The Internet Destroys the State

Another possibility is that the internet undermines our connection with the state. Online we become increasingly engaged with epistemic communities – be it social, like someone’s World of Warcraft guild, or professional, such as an association with a scientific community. Meanwhile, in the physical world, local communities – possibly at the regional level – become ascendant. In both cases, regulations and rules created by the state feel increasingly like an impediment to conducting our day to day lives, commerce and broader goals. Frustration flares, and increasingly someone in Florida feels less and less connection with someone in Washington state – and the common sense of identity, the imagined community, created by the state begins to erode.

This is, of course, hard for many people to imagine – especially Americans. But for many people in the world – including Canadians – the unity of the state is not a carefree assumption. There have been three referenda on breaking up Canada in my lifetime. More to the point, this process probably wouldn’t start in places where the state is strongest (such as in North America); rather, it would start in places where it is weakest. Think Somalia, Egypt (at the moment) or Belgium (which has basically functioned for two years without a government and no one seemed to really notice). Maybe this isn’t a world with no state – but lots of little states (which I think breaks with our mold of what we imagine the state to be to a certain degree) or maybe some new organizing mechanism, one which leverages local community identities, but can co-exist with a network of diffused but important transnational identities. Or maybe the organizing unit gets bigger, so that greater resources can be called upon to manage ne,w network-based threats.

I, like most people find this world harder to imagine. This is because so many of our assumptions suddenly disappear. If not the state, then what? Who or what protects and manages the internet infrastructure? What about other types of threats – corporate interests, organized and cyber-crime, etc.? This is true paradigm-shifting stuff (apologies for use of the word,) and frankly, I still find myself too stuck in my Newtonian world and the rules make it hard to imagine or even know what quantum mechanics will be like. Again, I want to separate imagining the future with its probability. The two are not always connected, and this is why thinking about this future, as uncomfortable and alienating as it may be, is probably an important exercise.

McWorldThe Internet Rewards the Corporation

One of the big assumptions I often find about people who write/talk about the internet is that it almost always assumes that the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis. There are good reasons for this – using social media, an individual’s capacity to be disruptive has generally increased. And, as Clay Shirky has outlined, the need for coordinating institutions and managers has greatly diminished. Indeed, Shirky’s blog post on the collapse of complex business models is (in addition to being a wonderful piece) a fantastic description of how a disruptive technology can undermine the capacity of larger complex players in a system and benefit smaller, simpler stakeholders. Of course, the smaller stakeholder in our system may not be the individual – it may be an actor that is smaller, nimbler than the state, that can foster an imagined community, and can adopt various forms of marshaling resources for self-organization to hierarchical management. Maybe it is the corporation.

During the conversation at FooCamp, Tim O’Reilly pressed this point with great effect. It could be that the corporation is actually the entity best positioned to adapt to the internet age. Small enough to leverage networks, big enough to generate a community that is actually loyal and engaged.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a feedback loop that accelerates the ascendance of the corporation. If our imagined communities of nation states cannot withstand a world of multiple narratives and so become weaker, corporations would benefit not just from a greater capacity to adapt, but the great counterbalance to their power – state regulation and borders – might simultaneously erode. A world where more and more power – through information, money and human capital – gets concentrated in corporations is not hard to imagine. Indeed there are many who believe this is already our world. Of course, if the places (generally government bodies) where corporate conflicts – particularly those across sectors – cannot be mediated peacefully then corporations may turn much more aggressive. The need to be bigger, to marshal more resources, to have a security division to defend corporate interests, could lead to a growth in corporations as entities we barely imagine today. It’s a scary future, but not one that hasn’t been imagined several times in SciFi novels, and not one I would put beyond the realm of imagination.

The End of the World

The larger point of all this is that new technologies do change the way we imagine our communities. A second and third order impact of the printing press was its critical role in creating the modern nation-state. The bigger question is, what will be the second and third order impacts of the internet – on our communities (real and imagined), our identity and where power gets concentrated?

As different as the outcomes above are, they share one important thing in common. None represent the status quo. In each case, the nature of the state, and its relationship with citizens, shifts. Consequently, I find it hard to imagine a future where the internet does not continue to put a real strain on how we organize ourselves, and in turn the systems we have built to manage this organization. Consequently, it is not hard to imagine that as more and more of those institutions – including potentially the state itself – come under strain, it could very likely push systems – like the international state system – that are presently stable into a place of instability. It is worth noting that after the printing press, one of the first real nation states – France – wreaked havoc on Europe for almost a half century, using its enhanced resources to conquer pretty much everyone in its path.

While I am fascinated by technology and believe it can be harnessed to do good, I like to think that I am not – as Evgeny labels them – a techno-utopian. We need to remember that, looking back on our history, the second and third order effects of some technologies can be highly destabilizing, which carries with it real risks of generating significant bloodshed and conflict. Hence the title of this blog post and the FooCamp session: The End of the World.

This is not a call for a renewed Luddite manifesto. Quite the opposite – we are on a treadmill we cannot get off. Our technologies have improved our lives, but they also create new problems that, very often social innovations and other technologies will be needed to solve. Rather, I want to raise this because I believe it to be important that still more people – particularly those in the valley and other technology hubs (and not just military strategists) – be thinking critically about what the potential second and third order effects of the internet, the web and the tools they are creating, so that they can contribute to the thinking around potential technological, social and institutional responses that could hopefully mitigate against the worst outcomes.

I hope this helps prompt further thinking and discussion.

 

Canada Post’s War on the 21st Century, Innovation & Productivity

The other week Canada Post announced it was suing Geocoder.ca – an alternative provider of postal code data. It’s a depressing statement on the status of the digital economy in Canada for a variety of reasons. The three that stand out are:

1) The Canadian Government has launched an open government initiative which includes a strong emphasis on open data and innovation. Guess which data set is the most requested data set by the public: Postal Code data.

2) This case risks calling into question the government’s commitment to (and understanding of) digital innovation, and

3) it is an indication – given the flimsiness of the case – of how little crown corporations understand the law (or worse, how willing they are to use the taxpayer funded litigation to bully others irrespective of the law).

Let me break down the situation into three parts. 1) Why this case matters to the digital economy (and why you should care), 2) Why the case is flimsy (and a ton of depressingly hilariously facts) and 3) What the Government could be doing about, but isn’t.

Why this case matters.

So… funny thing the humble postal code. One would have thought that, in a digital era, the lowly postal code would have lost its meaning.

The interesting truth however, is that the lowly postal code has, in many ways, never been more important. For better for worse, postal codes have become a core piece of data for both the analog and especially digital economy. These simple, easy to remember, six digit numbers, allow you to let a company, political party, or non-profit to figure out what neighborhood, MP riding or city you are in. And once we know where you are, there are all sorts of services the internet can offer you: is that game you wanted available anywhere near you? Who are your elected representatives (and how did they vote on that bill)? What social services are near you? Postal codes, quite simply, one of the easiest ways for us to identify where we are, so that governments, companies and others can better serve us. For example, after to speaking to Geocoder.ca founder Ervin Ruci, it turns out that federal government ministries are a major client of his, dozens of different departments using his service including… the Ministry of Justice.

Given how important postal code data is given it can enable companies, non-profits and government’s to be more efficient and productive (and thus competitive), one would think government would want to make it as widely available as possible. This is, of course, what several governments do.

But not Canada. Here postal code data is managed by Canada Post, which charges, I’m told, between $5,000-$50,000 dollars for access to the postal code database (depending on what you want). This means, in theory, every business (or government entity at the local, provincial or federal level) in Canada that wants to use postal code information to figure out where its customers are located must pay this fee, which, of course, it passes along to its customers. Worse, for others the fee is simple not affordable. For non-profits, charities and, of course, small businesses and start-ups, they either choose to be less efficient, or test their business model in a jurisdiction where this type of data is easier to access.

Why this case is flimsy

Of course, because postal codes are so important, Geocoder came up with an innovative solution to the problem. Rather than copy Canada Post’s postal code data base (which would have violated Canada Post’s terms of use) they did something ingenious… they got lots of people to help them manually recreate the data set. (There is a brief description of how here) As the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) brilliant argues in their defense of Geocoder: “The Copyright Act confers on copyright owners only limited rights in respect of particular works: it confers no monopoly on classes of works (only limited rights in respect of specific original works of authorship), nor any protection against independent creation. The Plaintiff (Canada Post) improperly seeks to use the Copyright Act to craft patent-like rights against competition from independently created postal code databases.”

And, of course, there are even deeper problems with Canada Post’s claims:

The first is that an address – including the postal code – is a fact. And facts cannot be copyrighted. And, of course, if Canada Post won, we’d all be hooped since writing a postal code down on say… an envelop, would violate Canada Post’s copyright.

The second, was pointed out to me by a mail list contributor who happened to work for a city. He pointed out that it is local governments that frequently create the address data and then share it with Canada Post. Can you imagine if cities tried to copyright their address data? The claim is laughable. Canada post claims that it must charge for the data to recoup the cost of creating it, but the data it gets from cities it gets for free – the creation of postal code data should not be an expensive proposition.

But most importantly… NON OF THIS SHOULD MATTER. In a world of where our government is pushing an open data strategy, the economic merits of making one of the most important open data sets public, should stand on their own without the fact that the law is on our side.

There is also a bonus 4th element which makes for fun reading in the CIPPIC defense that James McKinney pointed out:

“Contrary to the Plaintiff’s (Canada Post’s) assertion at paragraph 11 of the Statement of Claim that ‘Her Majesty’s copyright to the CPC Database was transferred to Canada Post’ under section 63 of the Canada Post Corporation, no section 63 of the current Canada Post Corporation Act  even exists. Neither does the Act that came into force in 1981 transfer such title.”

You can read the Canada Post Act on the Ministry of Justice’s website here and – as everyone except, apparently, Canada Post’s lawyers has observed – it has only 62 sections.

What Can Be Done.

Speaking of The Canada Post Act, while there is no section 63, there is a section 22, which appears under the header “Directives” and, intriguingly, reads:

22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

In other words… the government can compel Canada Post to make its Postal Code data open. Sections 22 (3), (4) and (5) suggest that the government may have to compensate Canada Post for the cost of implementing such a directive, but it is not clear that it must do so. Besides, it will be interesting to see how much money is actually at stake. As an aside, if Canada were to explore privatizing Canada Post, separating out the postal code function and folding it back into government would be a logical decision since you would want all players in the space (a private Canada Post, FedEx, Puralator, etc…) to all be able to use a single postal code system.

Either way, the government cannot claim that Canada Post’s crown corporation status prevents it from compelling the organization to apply an open license to its postal code data. The law is very clear that it can.

What appears to be increasingly obvious is that the era of closed postal code data will be coming to an end. It may be in a slow, expensive and wasteful lawsuit that costs both Canada Post, Canadian taxpayers and CIPPIC resources and energy they can ill afford, or it can come quickly through a Ministerial directive.

Let’s hope that latter prevails.

Indeed, the postal code has arguably become the system for physical organizing our society. Everything from the census to urban planning to figuring out where to build a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks will often use postal code data as the way to organize data about who we are and where we live. Indeed it is the humble postal code that frequently allows all these organizations – from governments to non-profits to companies – to be efficient about locating people and allocating resources. Oh. And it also really helps for shipping stuff quickly that you bought online.

It would be nice to live in a country that really understood how to support a digital economy. Sadly, last week, I was once again reminded of how frustrating it is to try to be 21st century company in Canada.

What happened?

Directives
  • 22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

The Surveillance State – No Warrant Required

Yesterday a number of police organizations came out in support of bill C-30 – the online surveillance bill proposed by Minister Vic Toews. You can read the Vancouver Police Department’s full press release here – I’m referencing theirs not because it is particularly good or bad, but simply because it is my home town.

For those short on time, the very last statement, at the bottom of the post, is by far the worst and is something every Canadian should know. The authors of these press releases would have been wise to read Michael Geist’s blog posts from yesterday before publishing. Geist’s analysis shows that, at best, the police are misinformed, at worst, they are misleading the public.

So let’s look at some of the details of the press release that are misleading:

Today I speak to you as the Deputy Chief of the VPD’s Investigation Division, but also as a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and I’m pleased to be joined by Tom Stamatakis, President of both the Vancouver Police Union and Canadian Police Association.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is asking Canadians to consider the views of law enforcement as they debate what we refer to as “lawful access,” or Bill C-30 – “An Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts.”
This Bill was introduced by government last week and it has generated much controversy. There is no doubt that the Bill is complex and the technology it refers to can be complex as well.
I would, however, like to try to provide some understanding of the Bill from a police perspective. We believe new legislation will:
  • assist police with the necessary tools to investigate crimes while balancing, if not strengthening, the privacy rights for Canadians through the addition of oversight not currently in place

So first bullet point, first problem. While it is true the bill brings in some new process, to say it strengthens privacy rights is misleading. It has become easier, not harder, to gain access to people’s personal data. Before, when the police requested personal information from internet service providers (ISPs) the ISPs could say no. Now, we don’t even have that. Worse, the bill apparently puts a gag on order on these warrantless demands, so you can’t even find out if a government agency has requested information about you.

  • help law enforcement investigate and apprehend those who are involved in criminal activity while using new technologies to avoid apprehension due to outdated laws and technology
  • allow for timely and consistent access to basic information to assist in investigations of criminal activity and other police duties in serving the public (i.e. suicide prevention, notifying next of kin, etc.)

This, sadly, is a misleading statement. As Michael Geist notes in his blog post today “The mandatory disclosure of subscriber information without a warrant has been the hot button issue in Bill C-30, yet it too is subject to unknown regulations. These regulations include the time or deadline for providing the subscriber information (Bill C-30 does not set a time limit)…”

In other words, for the police to say the bill will get timely access to basic information – particularly timely enough to prevent a suicide, which would have to be virtually real time access – is flat out wrong. The bill makes no such promise.

Moreover, this underlying justification is itself fairly ridiculous while the opportunities for abuse are not trivial. It is interesting that none of the examples have anything to do with preventing crime. Suicides are tragic, but do not pose a risk to society. And speedily notifying next of kin is hardly such an urgent issue that it justifies warrantless access to Canadians private information. These examples speak volumes about the strength of their case.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the Police (and the Minister) refer to this as “basic” information, the judiciary disagrees. Earlier this month the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal concluded in R v Trapp, 2011 SKCA 143 that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the IP address assigned to him or her by an internet service provider, a point which appeared not to have been considered previously by an appellate court in Canada

The global internet, cellular phones and social media have all been widely adopted and enjoyed by Canadians, young and old. Many of us have been affected by computer viruses, spam and increasingly, bank or credit card fraud.

This is just ridiculous and is designed to do nothing more than play on Canadians fears. I mean spam? Really? Google Mail has virtually eliminated spam for its users. No government surveillance infrastructure was required. Moreover, it is very, very hard to see how the surveillance bill will help with any of the problems cited about – viruses, spam or bank fraud.

Okay skipping ahead (again you can read the full press release here)

2. Secondly, the matter of basic subscriber information is particularly sensitive.
The information which companies would be compelled to release would be: name, address, phone number, email address, internet protocol address, and the name of the service provider to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties.
Actually to claim that these are going to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties is also misleading. This data would be made available to police who, at best, believe they are in the lawful execution of their duties. This is precisely why we have warrants so that an independent judiciary can assess whether or not the police are actually engaged in the lawful execution of their duties. Strip away that check and there will be abuses. Indeed, the Sun Newspaper phone hacking scandal in the UK serves as a perfect example of the type of abuse that is possible. In this case police officers were able to access “under extraordinary circumstances” without a warrant or oversight, the names and phone numbers of people whose phones they wanted to, or had already, hacked.
While this information is important to police in all types of investigations, it can be critical in cases where it is urgent that police locate a caller or originator of information that reasonably causes the police to suspect that someone’s safety is at risk.
Without this information the police may not be able to quickly locate and help the person who was in trouble or being victimized.
An example would be a message over the internet indicating someone was contemplating suicide where all we had was an email address.
Again, see above. The bill does not stipulate any timelines around sharing this data. This statement is designed to lead readers to believe readers that the bill will grant necessary and instant access so that a situation could be defused in the moment. The bill does nothing of the sort.
Currently, there is no audited process for law enforcement to gain access to basic subscriber information. In some cases, internet service providers (ISPs) provide the information to police voluntarily — others will not, or often there are lengthy delays. The problem is that there is no consistency in providing this information to police nationally.

This, thankfully is a sensible statement.

3. Lastly, and one of the most important things to remember, this bill does NOT allow the police to monitor emails, phone calls or internet surfing at will without a warrant, as has been implied or explicitly stated.
There is no doubt that those who are against the legislation want you to believe that it does. I have read the Bill and I cannot find that anywhere in it. There are no changes in this area from the current legislation.

This is the worst part of the press release as it is definitely not true. See Michael Geist’s – the Ottawa professor most on top of this story – blog post from yesterday, which was written before this press release went out. According to Geist, there is a provision in the law that “…opens the door to police approaching ISPs and asking them to retain data on specified subscribers or to turn over any subscriber information – including emails or web surfing activities – without a warrant. ISPs can refuse, but this provision is designed to remove any legal concerns the ISP might have in doing so, since it grants full criminal and civil immunity for the disclosures.” In other words the Police can conduct warantless surveillance. It just requires the permission of the ISPs. This flat out contradicts the press release.

 

I Stand for My Rights & Privacy: The Coming Online Police State

“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

This was Mr. Toews’s, the Minister of Justice, counterattack to a question in the house regarding concerns of letting the police monitor citizens internet use without a warrant.

Apparently this is our choice: a big brother state or child pornography.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Not to mention frightening. But this is the world Canadians will be entering in a few short weeks once the new Conservative Crime bill passes. The provisions that require a warrant, are interesting: the bill forces internet service providers to record and make available, to both police and governments, their customers internet activity such as the websites they visit. Citizen, understand, this now means that Bell, Rogers or anyone else that provides you with internet on your phone or at your home will now be recording every website you visit. Disturbed about that invasion of privacy? It gets worse.

Most disconcerting is that police would be allowed to obtain your email address, your IP addresses (which often identifies you on the Internet – your home, for example, likely has an IP address), or your mobile phone number and other information without a warrant. They just have to demand it. Suddenly a lot of what you can do online can be monitored by the police – again, without a warrant.

It isn’t just opposition members who are concerned. The Federal Privacy Commissioner and provincial counterparts are deeply concerned. They understand what this means. As Jennifer Stoddart, the federal Privacy Commissioner wrote to Minister Toews:

I am also concerned about the adoption of lower thresholds for obtaining personal information from commercial enterprises.  The new powers envisaged are not limited to specific, serious offences or urgent or exceptional situations.  In the case of access to subscriber data, there is not even a requirement for the commission of a crime to justify access to personal information – real names, home address, unlisted numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and much more – without a warrant.

In a few short weeks, this will be our reality: we will live in a country where the government can gain access to information that enables them to monitor its citizens online without a warrant. Obviously, the opportunities for abuse are astounding. If you are a radical element non-profit advocacy group that disagrees with the government, you’re probably doubly concerned. Of course, if you are an regular citizen I hope you haven’t written any anonymous comments in opposition to the Gateway Pipelines, since this legislation, combined with the government’s new focus on eco-terrorists (they are as much a threat as neo-nazi groups apparently) could make you a “vulnerable individual” and so an obvious target for security forces.

Of course the real irony of all this is that while the government seeks to increase its powers to monitor Canadians online it has used the opposite argument – the fear of government intrusion into citizens lives – to end the long gun registry. Not 6 days ago, Conservative Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound) expressed his concern about how the gun registry would help foster a police state:

[…] Before I discuss the bill I would like to review how we arrived at where we are today. I would like to share with the House a quote from former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock: “I came to Ottawa last year, with a firm belief that the only people in Canada who should have firearms are police officers and the military.”

Does that sound familiar? Adolf Hitler, 1939.

You know what really reminds me of Adolf Hitler, 1939? A government that seeks to monitor the actions of all its citizens. That ask companies to record their activities in their homes and their places of work and that gives the police the right to access their personal information without a warrant. As a father I agree we need to fight child pornography, but I’m not willing to sign away my – or my children’s – civil rights and online privacy. I  suspect most Canadians, as they learn more about this bill, will feel the same way. They don’t want any government, Conservative, Liberal or NDP, recording what they do, or accessing information about them without a warrant from an independent judiciary.

Gov 2.0: Network Analysis for Income Inequality?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two types of graphs at the moment.  This first is a single chart that shows income growth for various segments of the US population broken down by wealth.

This second is a group of graphs that talk about pageviews and visits to various websites on the internet.

bits-tue71-custom2Top-10-Social-Networking-Sites-by-Market-Share-of-Visits-June-2011July-Search-Engine-Market-Share

What is fascinating about the internet stats is that they are broadly talking about distribution among the top websites – forget about everyone else where the pageviews become infinitesimally small. So even among top websites have a power law distribution, which must be even stronger once one starts talking about all websites.

And this is what I’m frequently told. That the distribution of pageviews, visits and links on the internet looks a lot like the first graph, although possibly even more radically skewed.

In other words while the after-tax income chart isn’t a clean curve, the trends of the two are likely very similar – except that the top 1% of websites do even better than the top 1% of after tax income earners. So both charts look like power law distributions.

Does this matter? I’m not sure, but I’m playing with some thoughts. While I’m confident that the income chart as power law distribution has replicated itself several times in history (such as during the lead up to the great depression, what is less clear to me is if the exponential growth has ever happened so fast? (would be fascinating to know if others have written on this). The rich have often gotten richer – but have they gotten richer this quickly before?

And is this what happens in a faster, more networked economy? Maybe the traits of the online network and its power law distribution are beginning to impact the socioeconomic network of our society at large?

Could this also mean that we need some new ways to ensure social and economic mobility in our economy and society. Network effects are obviously powerful online, but have also, historically, been important offline. In society, your location on that curve creates advantages, it likely gives you access to peers and capital which position you to maintain your status in the network. Perhaps the internet, rather than making the network that is our society more fluid, is actually doing the opposite. It is increasingly the power law distribution, meaning the network effects are getting stronger, further reinforcing advantages and disadvantages. This might have important implications for social and economic mobility.

Either way, applying some network analysis to income inequality and social mobility as well as the social programs we put in place to ensure equality of opportunity, might be a good frame on these problems. I’d love to read anything anyone has written on this – very much open to suggestions.

The Audacity of Shaw: How Canada's Internet just got Worse

It is really, really, really hard to believe. But as bad as internet access is in Canada, it just got worse.

Yesterday, Shaw Communications, a Canadian telecommunications company and internet service provider (ISP) that works mostly in Western Canada announced they are launching Movie Club, a new service to compete with Netflix.

On the surface this sounds like a good thing. More offerings should mean more competition, more choice and lower prices. All things that would benefit consumers.

Look only slightly closer and you learn the very opposite is going on.

This is because, as the article points out:

“…subscribers to Movie Club — who initially can watch on their TV or computer, with phones and tablets planned to come on line later — can view content without it counting against their data plan.

“There should be some advantage to you being a customer,” Bissonnette said.”

The very reason the internet has been such an amazing part of our lives is that every service that is delivered on it is treated equally. You don’t pay more to look at the Vancouver Sun’s website than you do to look at eaves.ca or CNN or to any other website in the world. For policy and technology geeks this principle of equality of access is referred to as net neutrality. The idea is that ISPs (like Shaw) should not restrict or give favourable access to content, sites, or services on the internet.

But this is precisely what Shaw is doing with its new service.

This is because ISPs in Canada charge what are called “overages.” This means if you use the internet a lot, say you watch a lot of videos, at a certain point you will exceed a “cap” and Shaw charges you extra, beyond your fixed monthly fee. If, for example, you use Netflix (which is awesome and cheap, for $8 a month you get unlimited access to a huge quantity of content) you will obviously be watching a large number of videos, and the likelihood of exceeding the cap is quite high.

What Shaw has announced is that if you use their service – Movie Club – none of the videos you watch will count against your cap. In other words they are favouring their service over that of others.

So why should you care? Because, in short, Shaw is making the internet suck. It wants to turn your internet from the awesome experience where you have unlimited choice and can try any service that is out there, into the experience of cable, where your choice is limited to the channels they choose to offer you. Today they’ll favour their movie service as opposed to (the much better) Netflix service. But tomorrow they may decide… hey you are using Skype instead of our telephone service, people who use “our skype” will get cheaper access than people who use skype. Shaw is effectively applying a tax on new innovative and disruptively cheap service on the internet so that you don’t use them. They are determining – through pricing – what you can and cannot do with your computer while elsewhere in the world, people will be using cool new disruptive services that give them better access to more fun content, for cheaper. Welcome to the sucky world of Canada’s internet.

Doubling down on Audacity: The Timing

Of course what makes this all the more obscene is that Shaw has announced this service at the very moment the CRTC – the body that regulates Canada’s Internet Service Providers – is holding hearings on Usage Based Billings. One of the reasons Canada’s internet providers say that have to charge “overages” for those who use the internet a lot is because of there isn’t enough bandwidth. But how is it that there is enough bandwidth for their own services?

As Steve Anderson of the OpenMedia – a consumer advocacy group – shared with me yesterday “It’s a huge abuse of power.” and that “The launch of this service at the time when the CRTC is holding a hearing on pricing regulation should be seen as a slap in the face to the the CRTC, and the four hundred and ninety one thousand Canadians that signed the Stop The Meter petition.”

My own feeling is the solution is pretty simple. We need to get the ISPs out of the business of delivering content. Period. Their job should be to deliver bandwidth, and nothing else. You do that, you’ll have them competing over speed and price very, very quickly. Until then the incentive of ISPs isn’t to offer good internet service, it’s to do the opposite, it’s to encourage (or force) users to use the services they offer over the internet.

For myself, I’m a Shaw customer and a Netflix customer. Until now I’ve had nothing to complain about with either. Now, apparently I have to choose between the two. I can tell you right now who is going to win. Over the next few months I’m going to be moving my internet service to another provider. Maybe I’ll still get cable TV from Shaw, I don’t know, but my internet service is going to a company that gives me the freedom to choose the services I want and that doesn’t ding me with fees that apparently, I’m being charged under false pretenses. I’ll be telling by family members, friends and pretty much everyone I know, to do the same.

Shaw, I’m sorry it had to end this way. But as a consumer, it’s the only responsible thing to do.

How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet – creating the right incentives

This week at the Mesh conference in Toronto (where I’ll be talking Open Data) the always thoughtful Jesse Brown, of TVO’s Search Engine will be running a session title How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet.

As part of the lead up to the session he asked me if I could write him a sentence or two about my thoughts on how to unsuck our internet. In his words:

The idea is to take a practical approach to fixing Canada's lousy
Internet (policies/infrastructure/open data/culture- interpret the
suck as you will).

So my first thought is that we should prevent anyone who owns any telecommunications infrastructure from owning content. Period. Delivery mechanisms should compete with delivery mechanisms and content should compete with content. But don’t let them mix, cause it screws up all the incentives.

A second thought would be to allocate the freed up broadcast spectrum to new internet providers (which is really what all the cell phone providers are about to become anyways). I’m actually deeply confident that we may be 5 years away from this problem becoming moot in the main urban areas. Once our internet access is freed from cables and the last mile, then all bets are off. That won’t help rural areas, but it may end up transforming urban access and costs. Just like cities clustered around seaports and key places nodes along trade networks, cities (and workers) will cluster around better telecommunication access.

But the longer thought comes from some reflections over the timely recent release of OpenMedia.ca/CIPPIC’s second submission to the CRTC’s proceedings on usage-based billing (UBB) which I think is actually fairly aligned with the piece I wrote back in February on titled Why the CRTC was right about User Based Billing (please read the piece and the comments below before freaking out).

Here, I think our goal shouldn’t be punitive (that will only encourage the telco’s to do “just enough” to comply. What we need to do is get the incentives right (which is, again, why they shouldn’t be allowed to own content, but I digress).

An important part of getting the incentives right is understanding what the actual constraints on internet access. One of the main problems is that people often get confused about what is scarce and what is abundant when talking about the internet. I think what everyone realizes is that content is abundant. There are probably over a trillion websites out there, billions of videos and god knows what else. There is no scarcity there.

This is why any description of access that uses an image like the one below will, in my mind, fail.

Charging per byte shouldn’t be permitted if the pipe has infinite capacity (or at least it wouldn’t make sense in a truly competitive market). What should happen is that companies would be able to charge the cost of the infrastructure plus a reasonable rate of return.

But while the pipe may have infinite capacity over time, at any given moment it does not. The issue isn’t about how many bytes you consume, it’s about the capacity to deliver those bytes in a given moment when you have lots of competing users. This is why it isn’t the “where the data is coming from/going to” that matters, but rather how much of it is in the pipe at a given moment. What matters is not the cable, but the it’s cross section.

A cable that is empty or only at 40% capacity should deliver rip-roaring internet to anyone who wants it. My understanding is that the problem is when the cable is at 100% or more capacity. Then users start crowding each other out and performance (for everyone) suffers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indeed this is where the OpenMeida/CIPPIC document left me confused. On the one hand they correctly argue that the internet’s content is not a limited resource (such as natural gas). But they seem to be arguing that the network capacity is not a finite resource (sections 21 and 22) while at the same time accepting that there may be constraints on capacity during peak hours (sections 27 and 30 where they seem to accept that off peak users should not be subsidizing peak time users and again in the conclusion where they state “As noted in far greater detail above, ISP provisioning costs are driven primarily by peak period usage.” If you have peak period usage then, by definition, you have scarcity). The last two points seem to be in conflict. The network capacity cannot be both infinite and constrained during peak hours? Can it?

Now, it may be that there is more network capacity in Canada then there is demand – even at peak times – at which point, any modicum of sympathy I might have felt for the telcos disappears immediately. However, if there is a peak consumption period that does stress the network’s capacity, I’d be relatively comfortable adopting a pricing mechanism that allocates the “scarce” amount of broadband pie. Maybe there are users – especially many BitTorrenters – whose activities are not time sensitive. Having a system in place that encourages them to bittorrent during off-peak hours would create a network that was better utilized.

So the OpenMedia piece seems to be open to the idea of peak usage pricing (which was what I was getting at in my UBB piece) so I think we are actually aligned (which is good since I like the people at OpenMedia.ca).

The question is, does this create the right incentives for the telco’s to invest more in capacity? My hope would be yes, that competition would cause users to migrate to networks that provided high speeds and competitive low and/or peak usage time fees. But I’m open to the possibility that it wouldn’t. It’s a complicated problem and I don’t pretend to think that I’ve solved it in one blog post. Just trying to work it though in my head.