Categories
Internet News Technology

Internet Information Laws

Internet Snooping

Once again the regulation of the Internet and collection of private data is in the UK news. According to the BBC, Home Secretary Teresa May is to outline a bill that will force firms to hand details to police regarding who was using a phone or computer at a particular time.

UK Government Intervention

Providers would have to keep data that links devices to users. In effect the Police want to know the IP address that the machine was allocated at any particular time, this is information that the companies currently do not keep as it is of no commercial value to them.

This is not the first time the UK Government has tried to pass legislation however that would enable large scale surveillance of Internet use, but the previous bill was dropped when they realized that it would not pass. Some think (and say) that this new proposal will be the start of an attempt to re-frame the argument and push a re-worded proposal whose aim will be similar to the last attempt.

My own opinion however is that this may all be a bit of a diversion, as the providers already have access to all of this and much more information and can do what they want with it. They are not democratically elected and so do not answer to the people. They are multinational, or probably more correctly sopra-national, and can realistically avoid national laws that may make life difficult for them. They can move operations, move storage facilities, change customer agreements, and do not have to justify their actions to anyone.

The Bigger Picture?

The idea that the government should not have access to this information is well worth thinking about, but governments are under some obligation to the people that they represent. They get access to the information that the providers want to give them. It will not be possible for the police or any other state organization to use raw data as they do not have the personnel to carry out such work, so they will have to be provided with already worked data.

Where and how this data is stored, how it will be processed, who will have access to it, what will be done with it in the future, how safe it is, what rights the users have, international law, privacy, responsibility, and any number of other issues you can think of should all be raised.

Once more the flow of information is in the hands of the big boys. It might not be right to worry so much about what a government might do with our data but better to worry about the data that the providers themselves have. Governments are asking for information from companies that already have it, that is the problem.

All of the above is of course my own opinion!

Categories
Environment Internet Media News Science

Glocalism

glocal

This week I have had an article published in an international peer reviewed journal called Glocalism. The article is about food production, and reports on many of the arguments that I touched upon in my recent food series.

The article, rather catchily entitled “Collective food Purchasing Networks in Italy as a Case Study of Responsible Innovation” by J. Hankins and C. Grasseni is free and can be downloaded here. It is slightly more of an academic article than my blog writing, is co-authored with anthropologist Cristina Grasseni, and reports our joint fieldwork looking at alternative food production networks in Italy and the USA.

Glocalism

As I said above the article is in the journal Glocalism, which is all about glocalism. So what is glocalism? Well it is all in the name, it is being local and global at the same time. To take part of the explanation offered by the Globus and Locus Association

“The term “glocalism” identifies the momentous changes generated by globalization, changes which have resulted in a permanent intertwining of the global and the local dimensions. In fact, there is no longer any place on the planet which has not been touched to a growing degree by various types of global flows and, at the same time, there are no global flows which are not increasingly parsed according to the many different characteristics of the places”.

Do you agree with this? That globalism means that the local can only exist in relation to the global? Or that globalization has effected every corner of the world?

Globalization

If we think about changes in the environment that maybe we should accept this line. If we think about how event in one part of the world effect others (or all) then we can see the local as part of a global system. If we look for local solutions to a problem are we in some way involving the global? If we are talking about anything that has to do with poverty, or pollution, or the environment, or anything related to technology, then we would probably have to accept that these are not local issues, but global. A house in Detroit is not sold for $1000 because of the state of Detroit, but because the world that Detroit is in has produced a situation that makes a house in Detroit (some areas) worth $1000.

If we think about technology use through this framework, we can see how much the Internet (to give one example) is taking the local and moving it into the global. The proportion of our world’s population living in cities of a million or more has risen from thirty-seven percent in 1970 to fifty percent today. By 2030 more than two-thirds of world population will be in large cities, and most of them will be in Asia. Why is this? Well one reason is the need to operate via high speed Internet. The infrastructure is in the big cities, and it has become a necessary part of working life.

So the fact that a city in India or Thailand has high speed Internet infrastructure effects mobility across the globe, the local and the global are entwined. This has an effect on food production capability, transport, the environment, and everything else you might like to think about across the globe.

How about that for a thought on an autumn morning in front of the computer in the Netherlands or a wintry start to a New York day shovelling snow?

Categories
Business Internet News

Blind Date (More Unauthorized Online Experimenting)

blind-date

Following up from news a couple of weeks ago about Facebook manipulating its users, this week news abounds regarding a dating agency that has been conducting some experiments on its users.

The New York Times reports that the online dating agency OK Cupid has been manipulating the data it gives to its clients, to find out how compatibility and looks effect the dating process. The company conducted 3 different experiments, in one it hid profile pictures, in another, it hid profile text to see how it affected personality ratings, and in a third, it told some hopeful daters that they were a better or worse potential match with someone than the company’s software actually determined.

So as we might imagine they came up with a series of findings, that we could loosely interpret as the following:

1. If you are told that the person is more compatible you are more likely to contact them.

2. Users are likely to equate “looks” with “personality,” even in profiles that featured attractive photos and little if any substantive profile information

3. When the site obscured all profile photos one day, users engaged in more meaningful conversations, exchanged more contact details and responded to first messages more often. They got to know each other. But when pictures were reintroduced on the site, many of those conversations stopped cold.

Well as far as I can see number 1 is pretty self evident. If you send me a note saying that a person is not compatible then I probably won’t bother them with my personal issues., 2 is quite interesting, if I like the looks of someone I am more likely to think that they are an interesting person, may be fun and without doubt the perfect match for me. And also the third is quite obvious, if I don’t know what a person looks like I might imagine their looks and would be more likely to want to get to know them.

The OK Cupid blog will fill you in on the details.

One interesting line from the blog states that “guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”. Wise words, but I wonder if everybody realizes that. And what power they wield!

Now I would like to raise the issue of how someone can design an algorithm to measure my compatibility with another person. What will make us more compatible? Height? Interests? Worldview (and if so how can you put that into numbers)?

There is an interesting book by Hubert Dreyfus called “What Computers Can’t Do”, and in it he argues that there are some areas and situations that cannot fully function. A computer program is based on expertise, on experience that can be categorized. If there are subject matters that are impossible to completely formalise, then they are impossible to formalize in computer programs (such as the one they use to find my perfect partner if they exist).

As a human I think we make decisions based upon generalizations of a situation. Characteristics are judged based upon experiences, I once knew someone with those characteristics and they were great, or stubborn, or nasty, etc. Research suggests that we play games such as chess in this way. We do not think about a long series of possible moves in the way a computer plays, but we see a situation, it reminds us of another situation that we have confronted in the past, and we act according to our experience of action in similar situations.

I am sure some readers have experience in this field, and I would be very happy to get some comments and expand my understanding.

Categories
Browsers Computers Internet Media Reviews Technology

Why not try Lightbeam?

I have just downloaded and taken a quick look at the new Mozilla add-on called Lightbeam.

I am an UBUNTU user myself, so I don’t know if this will work for other systems, but I would like you to help me decide if it’s an interesting tool either way.

I have always heard that companies share your information. So you go on one site and they share your habits with other organizations. Well Lightbeam shows you who they are sharing your information with.

One thing that I should say is that I do not know what the information they are sharing actually is. If anyone does know I would love to hear. So that is job number one for you down in the comments below.

The actual view that you are presented with when you open this program is very nice. A series of connected triangles that drift around the screen, all tied together like one of those kinnect toys that my kids play with. Some of the triangles have website logos on them, others are blank. It’s almost a snowdrop kind of effect.

Mozilla Lightbeam
Mozilla Lightbeam screenshot

The lines are either white or blue, the blue depicting that the sites use cookies. Probably half of them do.

And it makes a nice little educational game. As you visit another site it joins the page with its connections, the entity wobbles and bounces before coming static. Many of these connections are the same, creating a central mass, but some sites do not share with anyone that the others do, and live in their own little detached bubble.

I was surprised to find that ebay UK is not connected to any of the other sites. It has 3 satellite sites but they are all ebay subsections. I would have to draw the conclusion that ebay do not share your information. Job number 2, correct me in the comments below please.

The Weather channel divulge to another weather channel and 3 or 4 others, CNN and the BBC are about the same. TECHNOLOGY BLOGGERS DOES NOT SHARE WITH ANYONE! Read it and weep and respect where it is due Christopher. My employer the Bassetti Foundation are linked to Twitter, and nobody else.

Oh and guess who is in the middle of the blob, tentacles everywhere, yes of course, Facebook. I have not visited the site but they appear through the mist to take centre stage. No wonder profits are up!

Without understanding more this add on is just a toy to me, but I am sure if I was a bit more savvy it could give me a lot of insight into the dark and murky workings of the web. I think it might also present an opportunity, as we can now see who is prostituting our information and who is not, and maybe we should put more trust in those that keep our data in their own hands, and some others a little less.

Definitely worth a look I would say.

Oh on a final note, I went to Microsoft, Ubuntu and Mozilla. Microsoft share with 10 satellites, 5 of which use cookies. Ubuntu and Mozilla do not share with anyone. I visited 15 sites in total during my research, and that meant that I unwittingly connected to 76 third party sites.

Categories
Internet Media Science

Journal(s) of Misrepresentation

It is often said that the Internet has democratized the world. Maybe not in terms of governance, as we all know various governmental organizations collect huge amounts of data about our web use, but in terms of information.

When I was a teacher I saw many students relying on Wikipedia for information. I do the same myself of course, but I am at least wary about the accuracy of the information. They were not, and were shocked when I suggested to them that maybe all that is written is not true.

One worrying aspect is that the more critical a person is the more they are likely to distrust newspaper and TV reporting. This leads to more trust being put into Internet communication. The younger the user the more likely they are to get their news and information through digital media, but the more likely they are to trust it too, and this has consequences.

One of the consequences of this belief coupled with Internet freedom of information is the blurring of boundaries between reliable information in science and more fanciful or non- proven claims. Anyone can start an online journal, webpage or blog and for practically nothing set up a fake foundation, center of excellence or anything else they fancy, become the Director and Editor and publish to the world.

And you or I might find their work and not know how to interpret the information offered.

Sorting the truth from the lies
Sorting the truth from the lies

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about cold nuclear fusion. A small group of scientists is working to create nuclear fusion without using heat. A breakthrough would mean clean, practically free energy. I mentioned it here too as part of my Health of the Planet series.

In 2011 the Journal of Nuclear Physics announced such a breakthrough. It was reported in the national press in Italy, on CNN and the BBC. A Journal of this quality reporting such findings! Peer reviewed, high quality articles etc etc….

But as I was saying earlier, we should look beyond the gloss and at the substance, and it turns out that this wonderful journal is in fact produced and edited by the very scientist/entrepreneur that has made the breakthrough that he is telling us about.

It is not really a rigorous scientific journal, it is really a personal blog, and as such contents are possibly a little bit liable to bias (maybe).

Last week saw wide reporting of an experiment conducted by journalist John Bohannon and published through Science, an online and paper and much more reliable source of information.

To cut the story short Bohannon wrote a paper about a kind of miracle drug for cancer treatment. The paper contained many of the same errors that you or I might include, as non scientists. It came from a false research center too. Then it was submitted to just over 300 online journals. Fake results, flawed experiments, fundamental errors of high school biology, all included.

Half of the journals published the article as it was. High quality peer reviewed online journals (supposedly) accepted the article, it passed their stringent review systems and made it to publication.

You can read a much more detailed account of the event here in the original Science article. Tales of China and payments for publication, love letters from editors etc, it is all here.

So the problem becomes noise. With all of this noise, information, reporting and news, how can we pick out the real important stuff? Everybody’s voice becomes equal, the fact that 99% of scientists believe in something no longer means anything. The 1% of scientists (I know it is a big word) who do not believe that humans are contributing to global climate change have the same weight of voice as the others, and here in the US you can see the results.

Free market, free thinking, free Internet, free publication, free speech. Free propaganda and free misreporting too, unfortunately.

Categories
Blogging Internet Media News Social Media Technology

How Much Freedom Does the Internet Bring You?

On the surface Internet living seems to bring a great deal of freedom to many different parties. Last month for example I posted from the USA, Italy and the UK, we can work from home, buy direct and have access to all kinds of information.

This might make us feel that the web itself creates freedom, or that it is free to operate as we wish. I am not so sure that this is the whole story however, and others agree.

How much freedom of speech really exists?
How much freedom of speech really exists?

Last week Security technologist Bruce Schneier gave a talk as part of the TEDx Cambridge series. Schneider is very interested in security and perceptions of security as this previous TED video shows, but last week’s talk was different.

He took the problem of Internet freedom as his topic, and raised some very interesting arguments. The following quotes are taken from his speech as reported on our local Boston.com website:

“Which type of power dominates the coming decades? Right now it looks like traditional power. It’s much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. China has an easier time blocking content than its citizens have getting around those blocks.”

We can see that there is some evidence to support this case, if we look at this article that appeared in the Huffington Post a couple of years ago. It recounts the tale of Google pulling out of China because they no longer wanted to censor their searches. Google chose to redirect users to their non censored search engine based in Hong Kong. The Chinese government managed to block the results anyway, so users were left in the same position as before, no access to the information.

If we take a broader look though we find that it is not just China but other countries that are making repeated requests for Google to censor their content. CNN report the revelations of the recent Google Transparency report, where Canada, France, the UK and the USA feature strongly in the league of requested censorship. The report is here, easy to follow and a 5 minute thumb through might change your ideas regarding freedom and regulation on the web.

Just yesterday Linkedin announced that they challenging the US government over data requests. US organizations are allowed to publish the total number of data requests, but cannot break the figure down to reveal the number made by security services. Linkedin say this legal situation makes no sense, and many other companies agree. Read about it here.

“Cyber criminals can rob more people more quickly than real-world criminals, digital pirates can make more copies of more movies more quickly than their analog ancestors. And we’ll see it in the future. 3D printers mean control debates are soon going to involve guns and not movies.”

Just this week The Independent ran a story about Europe’s criminal intelligence agency that is fighting unprecedented levels of crime across several fronts as gangs capitalise on new technology. We are not talking about a few individuals hacking into the odd bank account here and there, we are looking at the new form of organized crime. A multi billion dollar industry in Europe alone.

The gun reference is of course to the distribution of plans for a 3D printer manufactured gun. Read about it here.

Caution in cases of political dissent
Caution in cases of political dissent

Much has been written about how Facebook and other interfaces have the power to democratize society, and their potential to promote revolution. The so-called Arab Spring is often given as an example, but as well as dissidents using Facebook to organize protests, the Syrian and other governments also used Facebook to identify and arrest dissidents.

There are plenty of examples. Here is an article about 3 Moroccan activists who were arrested for their comments criticizing governments at that time. One used a Wikileaks type platform, another Facebook and the third Youtube. They were all arrested and charged with various and sometimes unrelated crimes.

I wonder where they are now?

Categories
Business

Could you be an entrepreneur?

Building your own business is not as intimidating as it used to be.

This is partly down to all the different technologies that are available to us now, specifically, the Internet. So in this modern world of technology ANYONE can be an entrepreneur…

Well, not exactly. You may have the tools you need, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the temperament necessary to become a GREAT entrepreneur. Without that, it may be possible you’re not meant to be a successful businessman at this point. How do you know if you have what it takes to succeed this way?

You’re a charmer

While whilst being an extrovert isn’t a prerequisite for winning in business – you don’t really think that Bill Gates was an extrovert before he was successful, do you? – however knowing how to speak to people is. The fact of the matter is that most companies cannot succeed without the hard work of multiple individuals. It’s not just about getting investors to put money into a venture; it’s also about inspiring people to do what needs to be done for the sake of the organization. You need to be able to talk people into doing things that they never thought possible, if you want to win the game of business.

You’re a bit of a mad scientist

While you don’t need an actual science degree to become an entrepreneur who can compete with the best in today’s market, you still need some level of scientific curiosity to be able to offer customers something new.

Asking questions like “why is this not working?” and “what does THIS button do?” pave the way towards innovation – something that consumers today really, truly, value. You need to be brave enough to ask questions and explore some pretty crazy alternatives if you want to compete in and dominate the industry of your choice.

You’re pretty darn stubborn

You can’t expect yourself to succeed if you don’t know how to stand your ground. Sure, you also need to know when to stand down and admit that you got some things wrong. But, for the most part, you need to have the stomach for the trials and tribulations most entrepreneurs have to face. You can’t expect instant success for your business, and you need to be able to push through your company’s darkest moments if you want your enterprise to survive in its first year or so. If you want to take your business to the top, then you darn well better believe in what you’re doing.

You’re an optimist

A boy on a laptopYou can’t build a business if you always think of the worst-case scenario (and panic) every time the progress of your company hits a snag. Apart from stubbornly believing in what your enterprise has to offer to the world, you also need to believe in looking at the brighter side of life. That way, instead of focusing on the problem itself, you’ll just find other elements of the situation that you can use to your advantage. If you can look at a crisis and think that it gives you an opportunity to show off the company’s resilience, then you have a better chance of succeeding.

So, do you think you’re meant to be a successful entrepreneur?

Categories
Business Computers Internet News Smartphones

Taxing the Smartphone

On Monday a report was released in France that contained the suggestion that a tax should be levied on Internet devices in order to raise money to promote and protect French cultural production.

A Tax Paid Phone
A Tax Paid Phone

For several years France has had a policy of taxing broadcasters and spending the money on supporting its own film and entertainment industries, but revenues are falling. The problem seems to be that many more people are accessing their entertainment via the Internet and therefore not contributing to its production cost.

The Lescure report as it is known suggests a tax of between 1 and 4% on any Internet capable devices (smartphones, eBook readers and games consoles included), but as we might imagine many of the producers of these devices are not happy about the proposal.

Money has to be raised to maintain the entertainment industries, but many of the companies that provide access to this entertainment are not based in France and do not contribute. They probably don’t want to either, and so we come across the same problem that I wrote about last week, collecting national taxes from international corporations based in another state is never easy, and borders are porous.

The proposed tax would replace one already in existence upon storage devices. Currently tax is levied on blank CD’s and memory sticks as well as computers with hard discs.

The manufacturers complain that the price of the devices would rise leading to fewer sales, although the author of the report argues that such a small percentage increase would make little difference, and would not even effect the home job market because most of these devices are assembled overseas. A 1% tax would raise something of the order of 90 million Euro a year.

The problem remains though. As our sources of entertainment move away from pay TV, publicity funded channels and national subscription systems such as the BBC, money is taken away from the producers and associations that represent and fund these industries. Some see the fact that Google and Apple amongst others are operating outside the tax system and are not contributing to the industries that they make their money from as unfair, and hope that this change in tax law will go some way to evening out the field.

The Wall Street Journal goes into a little more depth on the matter in its free online edition.

I wonder if France takes this step if others in the EU will follow. There are many different ways of making money through so called free downloads as we all know, but the money ends up in the pockets of the provider and not the producer and the industries involved are feeling the pinch. Maybe this needs to change.

Categories
Business Internet

Selling second hand items online

The world is caught up in a massive credit crunch which has turned every consumer into a spendthrift. Maximizing resources has been declared one of the most predominant consumer trends in 2012. Popular auctioning sites have become playgrounds for shoppers and sellers alike. Re-purposed goods have created such a massive niche that recommence is now a part of first world culture.

Spendthrift Nation

Second hand childrens toys
A jumble sale of second hand toys

The economic climate has had a lot to do with the boom in recommence, but the benefits of selling and buying re-purposed goods has lasted as long as it has on the strength of its other benefits. In the past, selling second hand items was inconvenient, demanding that consumers use stores that bought at low prices to create space for further mark ups. The internet has cut out profit hunting middlemen, allowing you to sell your second hand items online directly from home. Today it takes little more than a five minute registration process to re-purpose old items.

One Man’s Meat is Another Man’s Poison

Regardless of how unusable an old item may seem to its owner, the global marketplace offers up a massive consumer group bound to include at least one buyer who will find value in another person’s junk. The World Wide Web has extended the contacts list of the average consumer, introducing a myriad of potential buyers.

Security and Convenience

Online auction sites have made resale a streamlined process by offering shipping and packaging services for consumers who want to profit effortlessly from their old items. Secure online banking services ensure that buyers and sellers are kept safe from the penny pinching public.

One Stop Shopping

In a brick and mortar environment, it can take months to find a buyer. The traditional garage sale demanded that you invite strangers into your own home over weekends that would be better spent elsewhere. Today’s online vendors separate consumers into groups according to indexed categories, sending sellers a whittled down group of appropriate buyers. A single site may act as a retailer for products as diverse as fashion, décor, gadgets and tools, so you need visit only one vendor to sell a closet full of unwanted widgets.

Global Economies

The sheer size of the global marketplace means that low value items can be bartered up to produce often startling returns. A fourth edition novel from the Eighties might sell for a few dollars at a brick and mortar store. When you place items on sale, the internet gives you the potential to find buyers who overvalue items and are thus willing to pay far more for them. A buyer who attaches sentimental value to that second hand book is generally willing to part with a significant chunk of income in exchange for personal value. The online marketplace operates according to its own economy, where demand is directly proportionate to the unique personal value individuals place on niche products.

Scarcity is another predominant force that pushes price tags well beyond real world worth.

Categories
Computers Internet News

Using White Space for Internet Coverage

Google launched an interesting experiment this week, offering free “super” wi-fi connection to the Internet for several schools in Cape Town South Africa. What is interesting about that you might ask? Well they are using the unused frequencies in the broadcast TV spectrum.

White Space diagram
A diagram of a white space network

The TV broadcasting frequency spectrum is currently divided between many channels, but between each channel there is a gap, a frequency space, often known as “white space’, and the hope is that this space can be used to broadcast high speed wireless Internet access. This experimental system is not without it doubters though, TV companies are not keen because they think there might be interference in their picture, so what better than a small experiment to try it out?

We can all imagine how this experiment might revolutionize Internet use though. In the countryside where infrastructure is lacking but TV is visible the companies could offer a service. In the city where cables are all in use they could do the same. One great advantage is that low frequency signals can travel over long distances, so the coverage potential is massive, and they penetrate buildings and other natural barriers much more efficiently than other frequencies currently in use.

Here in the US many telecommunications carriers have been complaining that there is not enough bandwidth for them to keep up with consumer demand, and so the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to free up spectrum space. They approved rules in 2010 about the use of such white spaces and databases have been set up to monitor spectrum use to see how it can be improved. Google are one of the leaders in this database organization too, as this article explains.

Experiments are being conducted here too, with this article describing how the system is being used in a small North Carolina town, and results reported in the UK claim that the system can deliver 16 megabits per second over 10KM (see Christopher’s comments on this related article for an explanation of what that means), but this is a delivery similar to what we know as 4G.

Potentially great improvements in coverage might be just round the corner through a more efficient use of an already existing infrastructure.