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It’s a dance as old as (digital) time. When faced with a challenge, politicians will look for a scapegoat in which to assign the blame of a complex issue, and propose allegedly easy solutions to fix impossible problems. Terrorist attack? End encryption. Rise in populism? End fake news. Violent crime increase? Video games are to blame. Teen suicides? Regulate social media.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been in the news demanding that social media clean up their act, or there will be regulation forthcoming.He wrote:

“It is appalling how easy it still is to access [harmful] content online and I am in no doubt about the harm this material can cause, especially for young people. It is time for internet and social media providers to step up and purge this content once and for all.”

His calls come on the back of the tragic suicide of teenager Molly Russell, whose parents claim took her life because of Instagram. Russell was following a number of accounts that show depressing content which they say promotes suicide and self-harming, with messages such as “i hate me”, “this world is so cruel and I don’t want to see it anymore”, and “have you ever cried just because you are you?”, or images such as this:

The main argument from the parents and people like Matt Hancock is that these images are too easily accessible, that looking at hashtags such as #selfharm, #depression and #suicide will readily produce images that are excessive, and often are directly or indirectly encouraging harmful conduct, and that displaying such images makes vulnerable teenagers more likely to engage in self harming. So we are told that social media must take immediate action to remove harmful content and protect children. Who could oppose such a view? Won’t anyone think of the children?

Reporting tools are already available

While I am entirely sympathetic with the plight of the victims of depression and their families, and agree that often teenagers and children will have access to images that can encourage self harm and suicide, I disagree that this is a simple problem, and that it can be easily fixed with a change in regulation or legislation.

Firstly, there is this idea in some circles, and particularly in sectors of the press, that social media is an unregulated space where everything goes and where terabytes of harmful content are easily accessible. The fact is that companies already spend millions on content moderation, with lengthy rulebooks on what should be filtered out. Similarly, platforms such as Instagram already allow users to flag content, or to let the system know when someone might be engaged in practices that could lead to harm. When you search for some potentially problematic hashtags, you will get this message:

Secondly, removing all harmful content is very difficult because of the volumes involved. 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Instagram users upload 400 million stories per day, and 52 million pictures per day. It’s impossible to moderate this amount of content, and while companies could try to use machines to do some of the moderation (they already do to some extent), this can generate more problems than they are worth, as there is always the chance that legitimate content will be automatically removed.

Finally, there seems to be a serious misunderstanding of how the Internet works, and where the problem really lies. Snapchat is the most popular social media amongst teens, and this could prove extremely difficult to police as regulators may be trying to tackle the wrong technology. If every single harmful image was magically removed from Pinterest and Instagram tomorrow, there would still be other outlets, and then others that have not even been invented. The problem is to look at the images on Instagram as the cause, and not as the symptom. What drives teenagers to self harm? Likely a combination of causes, but it is likely that by the time someone searches for a hashtag like #suicide, something is already gone wrong in that person’s life, and it is most likely not caused by an Instagram post.

I am not saying that we should do nothing, but I am afraid that a lack of understanding of how content is shared and curated will produce the wrong proposals. We could find that misguided solutions may end up pushing teenagers to darker corners of the Internet. Any action must be taken with clear understanding that social media is just part of the problem, and that there are other factors at work here, such as social change and even parenting strategies.

Do not trust anyone peddling easy solutions, the Internet does not come with a switch.

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Costa Rican news outlets have been reporting a tragic story of a kidnapping that has a very interesting cryptocurrency twist. 12 people have been arrested in Costa Rica and Spain in connection with the kidnapping (and suspected murder) of American entrepreneur William Sean Creighton, who disappeared in September 2018 and hasn’t been seen since. Creighton’s family were contacted by the kidnappers and asked to pay a ransom of $5 million USD in Bitcoin, but they were only able to pay $1 million. Despite making a transfer, Creighton was not released, and is now presumed dead. It must be added that it is thought that Creighton was targeted because he ran a sportsbook betting business in Costa Rica called 5Dimes, and was taking payment in Bitcoin.

The story has caught the public’s attention for many reasons, not only because kidnappings are rare in Costa Rica, but also because the identity of those arrested, which include the main suspect, his girlfriend, his mother, and his grandmother. The fact that the band included two policemen is also an indication of the appalling degree of corruption that plagues law enforcement in my county of origin; these policemen collaborated in stopping the victim on the road, facilitating and allowing his kidnap.

As an avid follower of cryptocurrencies, the most interesting element for me has been how the band was apprehended despite the use of Bitcoin. One of the most vaunted characteristics of Bitcoin is its anonymity, and this is the reason why it has become the currency of choice for many criminal activities. In theory, all transactions are anonymous, BTC exists as a claim to funds held in a digital address, and you do not need to provide identity to gain access to those funds, only possession of a private key.

But unless you intend to remain fully digital, the failure of the anonymity element is its interaction with the tangible world, and this seems to be where the criminals made key errors that easily gave away their identity. While the reports do not state categorically how the suspects were caught, it seems likely that it was precisely in the vital final step of converting their crypto assets into fiat currency where they showed their identity. To understand this, we need to understand that all Bitcoin transactions are public because they are recorded on the public ledger that is the blockchain. As the victim’s family made a payment with Bitcoin, they would have known which virtual address the funds were sent to, and these accounts would have been given to the police.

With that address (or addresses), then the police could monitor movements in and out of the virtual wallets. According to the statement by the Costa Rican investigators, it was precisely in this stage where the criminals made a key error. Apparently, when moving funds in and out of a wallet, an IP address was revealed which was linked to the main suspect, a Costa Rican computer engineer. We have not been given full details, but the Costa Rican authorities claimed that they were able to identify the suspect early on due to this IP address, and then they passed those details to the Spanish police.

There are various ways at this stage by which the police could have identified the suspect. The most likely in my opinion is that he had opened an account with an exchange to change funds from Bitcoin to other currencies (it’s difficult to pay for daily stuff with cryptocurrency after all). He either used his real details to comply with money laundering regulations, or he connected to the exchange to manage his wallet with his real IP address, which could have made him easier to find. The police only needed to ask the exchange for either his real name, or the IP addresses connected to the cryptocurrency wallets, and it is likely that the exchange complied immediately. It is quite remarkable that the police were aware of his identity very early on, and were able to notify Interpol and authorities in Spain that he was moving there.

This is a fascinating conclusion to a very tragic crime, and one that shows us that while Bitcoin is anonymous, the failure point is always its interface with reality. While it is true that many criminals have managed to elude justice by the use of cryptocurrencies, when there is a very large criminal offence such as a murder or a kidnapping, police may be able to identify criminals because eventually most people will make a mistake at some point and give away their identity, particularly if they want to exchange their digital assets.

In other words, even cybercriminals should HODL.

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It’s turtles all the way down

A few months ago something interesting happened. I’m currently on sabbatical, so my days are spent in a combination of reading, researching, writing, and procrastinating by watching YouTube videos. I came across a very interesting video from a user called Vsauce (aka Michael Stevens) on how the Earth moves. I found it well produced and entertaining, and decided to look at other videos from the same person. My attention was drawn to an episode entitled Is Earth Actually Flat? and clicked immediately. I had been aware that there was a growing flat earth community on YouTube, but I imagined it was mostly trolls. Nobody can possibly seriously believe that the Earth is flat in 2018, can they?

I watched the video with interest, and found most of the arguments well made and convincing. Yes, the Earth is not flat, Michael made excellent points on how we know this to be true. But then I made the mistake of looking at the comments.

Never read the comments.

But I did.

I was shocked by the number of apparently serious flat earthers there, most of them making weird and outlandish comments. A few were clearly trolls, but some seemed to be honest believers. The arguments were all very similar, and for the most part relied on either religious argumentation, or “common sense” observations (I can’t feel the ball spinning, water finds its level). A few contained links to other YouTube videos, never a book, a website, or any authoritative source of information. So I clicked on one of them.

This is a warning to you, fellow traveller, do not make the same mistake I have made, for once you click on one of these videos, all hell will break loose, and you will be dragged to the darkest underbelly of ignorance that humanity has ever produced. My YouTube suggestions became flooded with Flat Earth videos with titles like:

“101 proofs that the Earth is Flat!”

“NASA FAIL COMPILATION”

“Flat Earth – clouds clearly BEHIND the sun. Explain this?”

“Absolute Proof We’re Being Lied To About The Shape of The Earth”

I was hooked. So much misinformation. So much content. So much stupidity. So many falsehoods. So many conspiracy theories. What was going on? I looked at a few of the videos shown, and a clear picture of a common “model” started to emerge, these were not just completely random ideas, there was a real movement behind it.

The general idea is that the Earth is flat, the Sun and the Moon are small and local, and revolve around the world around the equator, changing orbit to account for the seasons and change of daylight. Sunsets and sunrises are due to perspective. The Moon does not reflect sunlight, and rather emits “cold light”. The North Pole is at the centre of the disc, and we cannot get to the edges because we are surrounded by a large ice wall that is policed by the governments of the world, and nobody can visit because of some shadowy treaty. No ship sails over the horizon, and all observations of a curvature are fake images by NASA and/or the Illuminati. Australia does not exist; or it does and it is much larger or smaller; or all Australians are paid actors by NASA and Soros; or all of the above, it’s complicated. The sky is a dome and space is fake. NASA is the worst, and their employers should be harrased and confronted in public wherever you may find them. All space launches are fake. All pictures of space are fake. The ISS is a drone (they can’t deny it as everyone can see it with binoculars or a good camera). We never went to the Moon. Gravity doesn’t exist. All airlines are in on the conspiracy, as well as all shipping companies. But there is no working map of the flat earth. There’s no model that explains eclipses. There’s no explanation of why the sky in the southern hemisphere has different stars, or why they revolve around another axis.

Most importantly, there’s no explanation of why this complex, expensive and wide-ranging conspiracy needs to exist in the first place.

After binging on so much disinformation, I started to look closely at the people producing these videos, and I was shocked by the viewing figures. Some channels were wildly popular, often with over 100k subscribers and millions of views. Apparently, YouTube’s algorithm loves the Flat Earth, and it has recommended videos proposing it hundreds of millions of times. Guillaume Chaslot, who helped to create those algorithms, wrote on Twitter:

The YouTube algorithm that I helped build in 2011 still recommends the flat earth theory by the *hundreds of millions*. This investigation by @RawStory shows some of the real-life consequences of this badly designed AI. https://t.co/rAi9sqAYYM

— Guillaume Chaslot (@gchaslot) November 19, 2018

In contrast, the various flat earth debunking channels are not nearly as popular (with a few exceptions). Yes, there is now also another industry, the flat earth debunking, with amazing work being done by the likes of SciManDan, Wolfie6020, Professor Stick, VoysovReason, and the very funny CoolHardLogic. Nobody uses their real name in YouTubeland.

Anyway, what is going on? It seems like the mindless algorithms we have created love disinformation. Reality sucks, and sensationalism and populism sell. So the Flat Earth is just part of a disinformation spectrum that includes fake news, Jordan Peterson, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon. All you need is to like one video and the platform will take that as a sign that you want more, and your suggestions will become filled with more disinformation. As fewer people read authoritative sources, social media and YouTube become the only providers of information, and if the system thinks that you like something, it will keep feeding it to you. Truth and reality are secondary, what matters is that you have a funny video and a handy meme. Nothing matters but views and subscriptions, and popularity becomes a measure of truth. Who needs articles when you can have someone telling you how smart you are for not believing the evil government?

But not all is lost. I have started seeing more “good” content making my way into my recommendations, and I would like to think that people at Google may be listening to our concerns, and could be trying to do something about it. While freedom of speech is important, I would like to think that people care whether new generations are being fed outright lies and conspiracies as truth. When we stop believing in a shared factual reality, then we are in serious trouble.

Time to go and watch again this gorgeous video of the Atacama desert. Don’t forget to like and subscribe.

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Do androids dream of electric creativity?

 Habitual readers may have noticed that I have been obsessed with artificial intelligence copyright for quite a while, almost as long as I have been interested in simian authorship. For anyone interested in revisiting some of the arguments, I have written an article on the subject. The subject has exploded in the last couple of days in my timeline with the news that a painting generated by an artificial intelligence program has been auctioned and sold for an astounding $432,500 USD.

There are quite a few interesting questions arising from this. Does the painting have copyright? If so, who owns it, the programmer or the person who pressed the button? Why would anyone pay such amount of money for that? Did Sotheby’s check the frame this time to avoid a Banksy?

Questions. Questions that need answering.

But first a bit of background. The painting is called Edmond de Belamy and it was made by the French art collective Obvious using a machine learning algorithm designed specifically to generate images, known as a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN). The artists fed the AI over 15,000 portraits from various epochs, and produced a set of portraits of the fictional Belamy family (the name is a play on words in French, comes from “bel ami”).

The Belamy family tree

So, does the work have copyright? As this was made in France, European copyright applies, and in my opinion almost certainly none of the paintings have copyright, and therefore would be in the public domain. Copyright subsists if a work is the author’s own intellectual creation expressing their creativity; given the process described by Obvious, which there is definitely some input by the artists in the manner of the selection of paintings to be mined by the AI, as well as the selection of the “family”. There is also some element of creativity in the reproduction of the artwork into an actual painting. On the whole, I don’t think that this would amount to enough creativity, but it will be interesting to see if a court agrees, we may have to hear evidence of the exact process in detail.

With regards to the actual physical paintings, they do not rely on copyright, which is why it has been auctioned and sold. An interesting question may arise as to whether people are able to reproduce the painting without permission, as it can be assumed that it’s in the public domain, it should not be an issue.

So far, so good. But there is a twist to the story. The GAN algorithm used by Obvious was not created by them, but it is a program created by researcher Ian Goodfellow, and it is an open source project released under a BSD licence. Under the terms of the licence there is nothing wrong here, developers are allowed to create derivatives from the software, and this includes different versions of the program. Obviously, there is no chance that Goodfellow would be able to claim any ownership of the resulting artwork. However, Robbie Barrat, a person working at a Stanford research lab, now claims on Twitter that he is the one that trained the AI one year ago, and has linked to his data on github. Barrat claims that he was asked by a member of Obvious for help on getting the models to work. Obvious responded that they did credit Barrat in their papers.

The ensuing discussion is fascinating, it always amuses me to see software developers tackle legal questions, some people are accusing the French artists of being “obvious-ly thieves”, while others seem to argue that this is an open source project, and therefore Obvious can easily do anything they want with the outputs.

The confusion at the heart of the discussion is that people seem to confuse three different things: software, data and the resulting artwork. Software is protected by copyright and it can be licensed, it seems like Barrat used GAN to train the AI, there are no issues there. Data may or may not be protected, as Barrat is in the US I would argue strongly that his outputs are not protected at all. Furthermore, the resulting images from the training of an AI are probably not protected anywhere but in a few jurisdictions (UK included, read my paper). Therefore, Barrat cannot make any ownership claims of the images as these are not creative works, and therefore not protected by copyright.

I go into a lot of detail about this in my paper, but long story short is that the US Copyright office has declared that only humans can create works worthy of protection, and this seems to be the case in many other jurisdictions. As of now, most AI works will be in the public domain and anyone can re-use them. Conflicts like this are precisely what I argued would happen, as more and more AI works will have commercial value.

It will be fascinating to look at what happens, in my opinion, we have not heard the last from the Belamys.

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The new Directive could be more threatening to the Web than shark attacks

On September 12 the European Parliament decided to ignore expert advice and adopted a version of the new Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (DSM) that contains troublesome issues, which have been discussed extensively in this blog and many other places. The Parliament took three particularly troublesome actions (from a digital rights perspective): it watered down a new exception for data mining (Art 3), it creates a new right for publishers over snippets of their works (Art 11), and it requires the creation of filtering mechanisms for intermediaries (Art 13). We’ll concentrate on Arts 11 and 13 for now.

The relevant part of the Parliament text Art 11 now reads:

“1. Member States shall provide publishers of press publications with the rights provided for in Article 2 and Article 3(2) of Directive 2001/29/EC so that they may obtain fair and proportionate remuneration for the digital use of their press publications by information society service providers.

1a. The rights referred to in paragraph 1 shall not prevent legitimate private and non-commercial use of press publications by individual users.

2. The rights referred to in paragraph 1 shall leave intact and shall in no way affect any rights provided for in Union law to authors and other rightholders, in respect of the works and other subject-matter incorporated in a press publication. Such rights may not be invoked against those authors and other rightholders and, in particular, may not deprive them of their right to exploit their works and other subject-matter independently from the press publication in which they are incorporated.

2a. The rights referred to in paragraph 1 shall not extend to mere hyperlinks which are accompanied by individual words.”

This may seem rather obscure for those not following the debate. What is being sought is a 5-year exclusive right by publishers that will stop search engines from displaying search results using snippets of information linking to a published article, unless it is done through remuneration. This is directed specifically at services like Google News, as the publishing industry wants to recover some sort of licensing fee from search engines. As it has been pointed out, similar version of this right have been adopted in Spain and Germany, a change in the law that produced no fees for the publishers. The idea it seems that they want to force Google into compliance by forcing them to pay fees for linking to news sources. The proposal has also been known as a link-tax, which is not entirely accurate as it does not affect links, unless the link has the title of the piece.

The result is likely to be that Google News will cease to exist in Europe. It is also problematic for smaller news aggregators, and while it claims not to affect non-commercial and individual users, the wording is such that it could have a chilling effect on smaller services. My main concern is with smaller services such as blogs, and even social media services that offer some sort of aggregation. Good-bye Moments.

The main concern with Article 13 from the start has been that it imposes filtering obligations on websites. The first thing to point out is that Art. 13 involves “online content sharing service providers”. This has been defined in a narrow manner to try to deflect criticisms:

(4b) ‘online content sharing service provider’ means a provider of an information society service one of the main purposes of which is to store and give access to the public to a significant amount of copyright protected works or other protected subject-matter uploaded by its users, which the service optimises and promotes for profit making purposes.

Microenterprises and small-sized enterprises within the meaning of Title I of the Annex to Commission Recommendation 2003/361/EC and services acting in a non-commercial purpose capacity such as online encyclopaedia, and providers of online services where the content is uploaded with the authorisation of all right holders concerned, such as educational or scientific repositories, shall not be considered online content sharing service providers within the meaning of this Directive.

Providers of cloud services for individual use which do not provide direct access to the public, open source software developing platforms, and online market places whose main activity is online retail of physical goods, should not be considered online content sharing service providers within the meaning of this Directive”

This is quite telling. Knowing the complaint that Art. 13 could affect small and medium tech startups, the adopted text makes quite a lot of exceptions to which services are covered. Wikipedia, Amazon and Github are clearly excluded, along with any microenterprises and small-sized undertakings. However, this still leaves quite a lot of services, and we could see further balkanisation of the Internet as medium companies from across the world decide not to take their chance with European users.

The main text has the main objective of creating a sort of levy for companies not excluded that allow users to upload content. More money for the collecting societies! In case the intermediary does not want to pay a levy, then there will be this provision:

“2a. Member States shall provide that where right holders do not wish to conclude licensing agreements, online content sharing service providers and right holders shall cooperate in good faith in order to ensure that unauthorised protected works or other subject matter are not available on their services. Cooperation between online content service providers and right holders shall not lead to preventing the availability of non-infringing works or other protected subject matter, including those covered by an exception or limitation to copyright”

Co-operation here means filtering, similar technical solutions to those present in YouTube with contentID and similar schemes that allow rightsholders to pre-emptively claim content, and the filters will flag and remove if necessary. This is why some people have complained about a “war on memes” or the banning of memes, the idea is that a photographer, film-maker or TV company will send their content to be filtered for infringement, and any potential allowed uses such as parody and memes would be taken down. While I disagree that this will be a ban on memes, I agree with colleagues that this could end up being extremely problematic for users and intermediaries. There is a provision to allow for content to be put back if there has been a mistake, but this seems to be an afterthought.

My fear again is that companies will simply refuse to operate in Europe altogether.

What next? There are now three texts on the table, the Commission, the Council, and the Parliament, and there will be a negotiation to try to reach a final consensus text. My hope is that sanity will prevail and the potential harm of these articles will be deemed too much, and a more rational compromise will arise. The Parliament will need to look at the text one final time.

Then again, I was always a bit of an optimist.

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“We all filter down here”

This is a short post to bring together a few resources about the important vote taking place at the European Parliament on the proposed Copyright in the Digital Market Directive.

I’ve written about the issues I have with the proposed new publisher right (Article 11) here:

“this is a misguided attempt at stopping the change brought about technological changes, it’s the digital equivalent of trying to cover the sun with one finger. The publishing industry is in trouble, and they want legislators to save them by trying to get intermediaries to pay, when they should be changing their dying business models.

The effect of this is not to generate revenue, it is likely that the platforms will stop, and those affected will be the small publishers.”

And I’ve written about the highly problematic Article 13 here:

“What will end up happening is that the big players such as Facebook and Google will be able to comply as they already have pretty sophisticated mechanism in place, such as YouTube’s Content ID. But the real victims will be users and small intermediaries, who will not be able to compete with the large providers because they will not only have to provide filters, they will also have to provide the expeditious complaint mechanism that will bring back content if something goes wrong. This would make it prohibitive for small services, but most importantly for non-profit and other content providers to operate.”

And then I wrote about the JURI vote and its implications in this post.

There are quite a lot of resources about the vote, and we have witnessed an interesting split between copyright owners and technology platforms. Experts tend to be overwhelmingly against Articles 11 and 13. In a recent voting guide from copyright experts attending the EPIP conference, the following recommendations have been made:

  • that the text and data mining exception under Article 3 should apply to all lawful users (Schaake, in line with ITRE committee opinion and Commission Impact assessment option 4);
  • that new consumer facing exceptions for Freedom of Panorama and User-generated content are introduced (Article 5a and 5b, Schaake and Greens);
  • that Article 11 is deleted – and if there is no majority for deletion, the Comodini presumption be adopted (amendments by Schaake and Greens);
  • that Article 13 is amended to the text proposed by the IMCO Committee (preserving the integrity of the e-commerce directive) – and if there is no majority for the IMCO position, amendments by Schaake or Woelken be adopted.
  • A new Article 12a protecting sport event organizers was introduced at a late stage. This is completely unacceptable without conducting an Impact assessment. We recommend deletion.

While I would vote for deleting Art 13 altogether, I can live with the proposed IMCO Committee proposal. Art 11 should be sent back to the fiery chasm from whence it came.

Let us hope for a more balanced and rational copyright agenda, one that doesn’t throw the Internet into disarray.

Don’t forget to contact your MEP with the vote proposals.

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TechnoLlama by Andres - 6M ago

[Spoiler Alert]

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, Alisdair Gray.

These words are an integral part of Walkaway, the novel by Cory Doctorow, where he has decided to do something very rare, instead of showing us a dystopia, he paints a utopia, or more precisely, a techno-utopia. In doing so he joins the ranks of a few science fiction writers that have decided to describe more positive futures than the bleak prospects our current reality hints at, and in doing so joins the ranks of authors such as Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels are the golden standard of techno-utopianism.

According to William Gibson, the predictive value of science fiction is quite poor, and thankfully it is almost always wrong. Good science fiction does not really talk about the future, but it is rather a “selective amplification of the observed present”. Therefore, Doctorow doesn’t describe a utopia based on speculation, but shows us a future for which the seeds are already here: open source, 3D printing, maker culture, bioprinting, AI, and brain scanning. All of these are brought together with a new movement called the Walkaways, people who simply walk away from “default”, the name for our existing present.

The novel does start out as your average dystopia, describing a world that is plagued by climate change, environmental disasters, wars, and rampant economic inequality. Our present course is charted to its horrible conclusions, a nightmarish wasteland where governments are nothing more than fronts for the “zottas”, the few mega-multi-billionaires who control everything, the 0.0001%. These few have amassed fortunes that we cannot begin to fathom, while the vast majority of people live in poverty, fighting over the scraps left behind by the economic elite.

It is in this hellscape that the new economic and social movement arises thanks to post-scarcity economics and progressive social ideas. It’s difficult to pinpoint the politics of the Walkaway philosophy, by contrasting it to communism and libertarianism at various points it becomes clear that it is neither. There is some traditional anarchism, although as far as I remember Doctorow never uses the A word.  Walkaway is some hybrid form of anarchism that can also be found in the Culture novels, it uses some voluntarism, collective consensus-building helped by self-organising open source software and pull-request governance; it has non-hierarchical organisation structures, distributed architectures, decentralisation and redundancy built-in to everything, with some post-scarcity economics to top it all off. Property is  meaningless when you can just print and fabricate almost everything you need.

As an anarchist governance thought experiment, it has very interesting opposition to Libertarian strong-arm meritocracy. It is also a masterful indictment of the aggrandising privileged ideology of the economic elites, and this is often presented by the pathological self-confidence of the main villain, zotta Jacob Redwater. I found the open source ethos favoured throughout the novel to be a good blueprint for what a functional anarchy would actually look like.

The novel starts with a contrast between the dystopia and the seeds of the utopia. We start in dystopian Default following three characters that are dissatisfied with their reality, but they are not prepared to abandon it either until they suffer a police attack with drones after they attended a communist party. With nothing to lose, they walk away from default and are presented with the walkaway lifestyle by going to a bed-and-breakfast, which they found after reading forums and some wiki-how guide to becoming a walkaway. Here they encounter new economic and social realities, from lack of property to more open social norms such as communal bathing. We are also living in a “woke” social model, with open relationship and sexual models.

The conflict between Walkaway and Default becomes the central part of the novel, the zottas see the walkaways as an existential threat and start attacking various settlements, particularly after walkaway scientists manage to record consciousness, and therefore we are presented with the prospect of eternal digital life. The novel continues with this conflict, until at some point the superiority of walkaway lifestyle translates into more people joining in, while Default starts slowly dwindling, until at the end not even their paid thugs will enforce their dictates.

Spoiler alert, the good guys win.

This is an ideas book with lots of exposition of the technologies and the ideals of walkaway, and while it is fascinating, this can often detract from the story and the characters. Halfway through the book I realised that I really didn’t care about any of the characters, and even a shocking scene in which one of them dies left me cold. This is mostly because the protagonists spend quite a lot of their time making long expositions of the philosophy and its economic and social implications, and this stopped me from reading them as human beings, and more as descriptive agents. There are a few time lapses, which also took me out of the action, and the introduction of a new set of characters almost halfway didn’t help to get me to care about most of them. I understand why the various jumps and points of view were needed, but it detracted from the strength of characterisation.

I also found it slightly hard to believe that Default would not have collapsed earlier, particularly after it became possible to upload consciousness to a computer. I could not believe that people would stick to Default with nothing to lose.

However, these are just small complaints, the book was still a very good read, and as a digital rights geek I enjoyed the various nuggets here and there. There is a Brazilian airship called the “Gilberto Gil“, and I was delighted when it was revealed that the surname of one of the characters was “Jónsdóttir“. Towards the end a character is captured by Default and charged with hundreds of violations of every intellectual property right conceivable.

This is an important book for anyone interested in living as if they are in the early days of a better nation, goodness knows we need all the optimism we can get.

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GNU shall not pass!

*Thanks to Simon Phipps for coining “fake GNUs“, which I’m totally stealing.

The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community has been shaken by a minor yet interesting incident that has opened a discussion on politics and governance.

Lerna is a popular open source tool for managing JavaScript projects, and it is released using the MIT Licence. This licence is renowned as one of the most permissive FOSS documents in the licence ecology, and it is an excellent example of the four essential software freedoms. On August 28, a developer participating in the project made a pull request on GitHub that added a few lines to the project’s version of the MIT licence with the intent of prohibiting anyone involved with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from using the software. The addition reads:

The following license shall not be granted to the following entities or any subsidiary thereof due to their collaboration with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”):

  • “Microsoft Corporation”
  • “Palantir Technologies”
  • “Amazon.com, Inc.”
  • “Northeastern University”
  • “Ernst & Young”
  • “Thomson Reuters”
  • “Motorola Solutions”
  • “Deloitte Consulting LLP”
  • “Johns Hopkins University”
  • “Dell Inc”
  • “Xerox Corporation”
  • “Canon Inc”
  • “Vermont State Colleges”
  • “Charter Communications”
  • “LinkedIn Corporation”

The reaction was immediate. While quite a few people applauded the change as a way to get back at ICE’s actions against immigrants in the United States, others saw it as a direct violation of the principles of open source software. The changes were reverted after the community went up in arms.

This event opened up a few legality questions about the validity of the changes and about licence versions. Most expert opinions I have read tend to agree that the change in the licence would not affect any licensors retroactively, and would only affect users of that particular version forwards. It is also possible that the project would have been forked without the new licence if there had not been a restoration of the original. While interesting in their own right, the legal aspect is not the most pressing issue raised by the changes, but rather the political and governance questions.

The first question is one of the core principles of FOSS development. The first freedom in Free Software is “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0)”. This is also encapsulated in the Open Source Definition, which states in points 5 and 6 that the distribution terms of an open source project must not discriminate against persons or groups, and neither against fields of endeavour. This has always been one of the guiding principles of FOSS, and while it may seem odious to some, it is an important part of the movement. If you start adding exceptions to your licence to stop people you don’t like from using your code, then you should not be participating in open source at all.

I do have to say that in some way I empathise with the feeling that went into the creation of the new restriction, as a Central American I abhor the mistreatment of my compatriots by US immigration officers. But I also recognise that this could be a slippery slope that could cripple FOSS. One day you discriminate against companies working with ICE, the next you allow licence restrictions against gay developers, or against a religion.

FOSS is clearly political in nature to some extent as it is a clear statement against closed source and proprietary software development. But the politics must be kept out of the licence itself, even if done with the best intentions this can have nefarious effects down the line.

Moreover, this would have no effect as there is always the possibility of forking a project to work around the perceived non-free anomaly, so even the intended goal would be easily bypassed by the very nature of FOSS. The result would be empty gesturing and, dare I say it, virtue signalling with no impact whatsoever.

On the meantime, watch this ICE video from Michelle Wolf.

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I recently saw a Twitter thread discussing copyright and the blockchain, and remembered that I had started writing a blog post about it and never finished, so this current post will try to remedy that. While I have written extensively about the blockchain in the past, copyright itself has not really been of much interest in the research community, perhaps because the use cases has not been very prevalent in the media.

If we define the blockchain as an immutable decentralised database, then it could be easy to see some potential uses of the technology for copyright, and in particular for the creative industries as a whole. Blockchain technology has been suggested for management of copyright works through registration, enforcement, and licensing, and also as a business model through micropayments and tracking use. I will go through these without mentioning specific existing implementations and projects.

However, the actual application may depend on the exact definition of what is a blockchain, and this is not particularly easy as it seems that sometimes variations are used, as has been explained here before. For the purpose of this blog post I will use Google’s definition, a blockchain is “a digital ledger in which transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly.”

Registration

Perhaps one of the most cited copyright uses for blockchain is that of registration. Unlike other IP rights, copyright subsists without registration, although some jurisdictions require it for enforcement of rights. Nonetheless, voluntary registration of some sort can be useful in some instances, and there are those who still advocate for the usefulness of copyright registration in a variety of situations. Registers can help to diminish the problem of orphan works, but also having some sort of registering authority can serve as a filter of what is an actual work protected by copyright.

Assuming that some creators will want to register their work for whatever reason, the potential existence of an open database of copyright works that is also decentralised makes a some sense. A blockchain registration system would allow an author to provide robust evidence of ownership and would also give the user a unique identifying address. A registration service could also act in conjunction with other management elements, such as allowing payments.

While a decentralised and immutable record of ownership may sound appealing, there are quite a few issues. The most obvious one is making sure that the work’s owner (or an authorised agent) is indeed the one registering the work. Existing centralised registration schemes have a procedure in place to check claims of ownership, and while it may be slow, the system in place ensures that a certificate is awarded to a legitimate author. A decentralised service would have to have some sort of authority that ensures that an ownership claim is not entered by an illegitimate actor, but then that would defeat the purpose of the decentralised ledger. Moreover, once entered into the blockchain, the record is immutable, in which case wrong authors would be forever recorded in the blockchain.

There may be ways around some of these issues, but the solutions may mean that the technology is not really a blockchain, but something else.

Enforcement

Another proposed use of blockchain technology in copyright is to use it as an enforcement mechanism, particularly as part of a digital rights management scheme. The idea is to have a work represented as a unique address on a blokchain (which could also be attached to a registration system), and that this would inform the owner when a work is used. Under this system, browsers and media players could be built to only play and/or display authentic works registered on the blockchain. Sony has already patented such a technology, and there are other organisations exploring similar proposals, such as the JPEG standard committee.

Of all of the copyright-related ideas, this one is one of the ones that scares me the most because of the potential for misuse. This issue is connected to the registration problem highlighted above, and it would be one in which a person maliciously makes an ownership claim to a work they do not own. The Sony patent gets around this problem by relying on a registration authority, so we are back to having a centralised system that issues ownership keys, which again goes against the decentralised notion of a blockchain.

But the main problem is that a blokchain DRM could prove to be extremely detrimental for users by severely limiting copyright exceptions. One of the main criticisms of Art 13 of the proposed European Copyright Digital Market Directive has been that it imposes the deployment of filtering mechanisms to intermediaries, the so-called censorship machines. Now imagine such a filtering system using blockchain technology, where no fair dealing and fair uses are allowed: no parody , no educational use, no commentary, and no reporting. All because the machines says no. There is no recourse in case the system makes a mistake because the blockchain is immutable and distributed.

Computer says no. Forever.

Micropayments

One of the most talked-about potentials for the creative industries with regards to cryptocurrencies and the blockchain is that of empowering a micropayment marketplace for copyright works. Imagine a future in which, thanks to blockchain registration and DRM, every time a song is played, a movie is watched, or a picture is copied, there would be a permanent record of that use in a public ledger, and the use could be charged to the user’s electronic wallet. This would immediately erase piracy and allow creators to obtain a monetary reward through cryptocurrencies.

One of the early adopters of this idea is Imogen Heap, who managed to get quite a lot of traction in the press due to her use of blockchains in the release of her song Tiny Human. However, the experiment only produced a tiny return of about $133 USD, hardly a ringing endorsement of the model. Having said that, there are indications that some big players are really looking into the use of the technology in some form of another, with Spotify reportedly having purchased music blockchain startup Mediachain.

While micropayments may seem like another fantastic test case for the blockchain, there are quite a few issues. The first one is that, for all their early promises, cryptocurrencies have proven to be a terrible method of payment due to lack of scalability, slow transaction rates, and potential high transaction costs. The reason for this is the need for blockchain technology to rely on every transaction being recorded, as well as the need to reward miners and nodes in the system. Bitcoin is no longer a viable payment system for micropayments, and its use in commercial transactions continues to fall. Other cryptocurrencies have been plagued with scalability issues, with the Ethereum network being clogged up when digital apps become very popular. Now imagine a global system designed to record and conduct all sorts of transactions for digital content, and you will start to see that scalability could be a very real issue.

Some technical solutions have been suggested to alleviate the scalability problem, such as off-chain transactions and the creation of a micropayment network on top of existing cryptocurrencies. However, at the time of writing such solutions have not been fully developed, and some contend that they may not even be viable at all.

In the end, the main problem may be one of business models and commercial realities. Subscription systems such as Spotify, Netflix, Apple Music and Amazon Prime have proven extremely successful because consumers hate micropayments. Why then should we try to rely on slower, more cumbersome and untested systems that do not offer user improvements?

Licensing

In my opinion, licensing could be one of the most viable uses of blockchain technology in copyright through the implementation of smart contracts. At the most basic form, smart contracts are instructions written in code in the blockchain, they can be used for parties that have no previous interaction to conduct legal transactions with one another .

A licence is simply a legal document that allows a user to perform an action otherwise restricted by copyright. For example, this blog is released under a Creative Commons licence that allows everyone to copy, distribute and even re-publish it for non-commercial purposes. A smart-contract implementation of such a licence would allow me to write those terms into immutable code on the blockchain, and if someone wanted to re-use my content commercially, then this could be transacted automatically through the licence.

There are a few issues with this, but they tend to be similar to the problems faced by smart contracts in general, and this is not the place to elaborate too much on those (stay tuned). The immutable nature of the code can be problematic in case of bugs, and also it becomes difficult to change one’s mind on already existing contracts. There are also the problems of scalability described, but for the most part, licensing does not require a central authority, unless a person tries to licence something that does not belong to them, in which case we are back to square one.

Nonetheless, licensing is a potentially good test case for blockchain, and I am willing to hear from people who have been trying to use smart contracts to write licences, so far I have found a few proposals, but nothing concrete.

Concluding

There may be many possible uses of blockchain technology that are being developed, and I am sure that at some point there will be successful applications of the technology in the copyright industries. As of today, I still see too many issues that match other problems I have with blockchain implementation in general, but that does not mean that these may be solved in the future.

The question at the heart of any blockchain implementation always remains the same, what is the problem that you are trying to solve, and is the blockchain the appropriate technology to solve that issue?

For example, open source software has been managing quite well with dumb licences and distributed version control (such as github), and I have not seen a rush to replace many elements of software development for blockchains.

Other industries may want to look at software before jumping on the bandwagon.

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It’s turtles all the way down…

“Wow! It’s true! Our world is flat!”

“FLAT EARTH CONFRIMED”

“80 percent of what Nasa posts is fake”

“Why doesn’t the earth look flat from there?”

These messages are not an elaborate joke, they are real and they are reproduced from NASA’s Instagram feed comments. Yes, in the year 2018, one of the greatest delusions hitting social media is the baffling growth of belief that the Earth is flat. A cursory look at any sort of space-related discussion nowadays, be it a Space X launch or an ISS livestream, will be replete with people claiming that we live in a flat planet, and that globalists and “globtards” are being deceived by a cabal that includes the mainstream media, NASA, the UN, the scientific community, the airlines, the combined armies of the world, and George Soros (because all conspiracies start and end with Soros).

The flat Earth phenomenon is just the tip of the iceberg. We seem to be regressing in almost all aspects of knowledge and public discourse, from political discourse to climate change, easily-accessible and authoritative information is swept away by a torrent of fake news and falsehoods. Truth, facts, expertise and rationality are no longer in vogue.

We have access to astounding amount of information , yet disinformation is more widely available than ever before. How is this possible? Can the Internet really be making us stupid?

This was not supposed to happen, it is not so long ago that people still believed that the Internet would bring about a new enlightenment where people could easily access information, thus creating more educated citizens. But the opposite is true, the growth in information has also been matched with an unprecedented increase in disinformation, and the interconnected communications system seems perfectly designed to share the most popular (and often wrong) facile explanations instead of the more difficult realities.

Social media

The first thing that is happening is that media platforms have been designed to cater to what they think we like, and some controversial topics have a particular “stickiness” that make them prevalent once the algorithm thinks that you are interested. For example, I like watching esports and video game related content. For some reason (*cough*gamergate*cough*), platforms such as YouTube correlate this predilection with men’s rights content, particularly Jordan Peterson videos, but often virulent anti-feminist videos and even alt-right streams started making their way to my stream. Take the flat Earth, I clicked on one video out of curiosity, and my recommendations immediately became flooded with other flat Earth videos, as well as an unhealthy serving of anti-vaccination videos, with some more alt-right content just to top things off.

In other words, bad content gets clicks.

This is terrible news, because the generation of misinformation has become an economic strategy. I strongly suspect that many of the YouTube channels proposing and sharing flat Earth theories are doing it for the money, and not because they actually believe it. A similar case is to be made with some extreme right outlets, such as the much maligned InfoWars, where the hatred seems to be an elaborate marketing mechanism.

Social media also allows people with fringe views to congregate, so racists, cranks and frauds can come together into communities, expanding their reach.

The end of authority

The Internet has also brought about the erosion of expertise. Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit debate that “Britain has had enough of experts”. This phrase illustrates the state of discourse nowadays in almost all contentious topics. Mainstream media has been quite guilty of encouraging this mentality, where in the interest of balance an expert is paired up with someone with no qualifications whatsoever.
Take that decreasing respect for credentials and expertise, and you add the Internet, and you have the current environment. Search engines give us a disproportionate sense of expertise, just because you can google something doesn’t make you and expert, and this is often translated into over-estimating our level of knowledge. There is research that support such findings, search engines do make us overestimate internal intelligence. The more you have access to online information, the more you think you know what you’re talking about.

The Internet makes us more like that annoying person at the pub that thinks they know more than they actually do.

Similarly, social media presence is confused with expertise. YouTube keeps offering me adverts for cryptocurrency trading, in which a kid who looks barely out of puberty tells me confidently that “this is the time to invest in Bitocoin” by showing a graph and talking confidently to the camera. Who is this guy? What are his credentials? Who cares! He has a channel with lots of subscriptions, he must know what he’s talking about! I honestly read recently a pro-Bitcoin person claim that the fact that he has more followers than the International Monetary Fund means that he knows more about finance and banking than they do.

Expertise by blue tick.

The death of the Mainstream media

The greater availabilty of information has also eorded the role of the traditional media channels as safekeepers of a shared truth. It is evident that mainstream media often has biases and ulterior commercial motives, often hidden, but at least we could trust for a level of impartiality and basic fact-checking in reporting.

But in the era of Brexit and Trump, all pretence that reporting truth is an achievable goal has disappeared. The availability of forums and more interactive media makes traditional outlets seem outdated and antiquated. People tend to trust sources they see in social media, which is why Facebook became weaponised so easily in the last few years. You’re more likely to trust a xenophobe meme shared by your family on WhatsApp than you are to trust a nameless presenter at the BBC.

In some debates, even a mention of any traditional media source will be met with derision and incredulity. In fact, if CNN reports something, the assumption in large number of circles is that the information is outright wrong, and therefore the conspiracy theory has more credit.

Concluding

It’s a dark time for public discourse, and I do not see any viable solutions in the near future. While legislators around the world are starting to try to tackle fake news and other misinformation online, it is not clear that any of the proposed solutions will alleviate the current situation.

Platforms such as Facebook are starting to claim that they are changing to make it more difficult for false information to be shared, but this seems to be too late.

The problem is that misinformation sells, and until platforms start to try to downgrade their prevalence and virality, we’re stuck with hundreds of Moon landing hoaxes and armies of deluded flat Earthers.

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