Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I'm scared for the Internet

(This article was written for Entelechy Edition 33 (February 2012). The news is slightly old, but posted here so I have a public permalink to the article)

When the Internet began over 30 odd years ago, it was an ideal of democracy. Born in universities, where only meritrocracy ruled, it was used by hackers whose ideals were very egalitarian. In its very protocols, the Internet encodes equality. No piece of data is considered more important or more dangerous than any other.

Even as the World Wide Web exploded some 20 years ago, it retained the ideals of the Internet, although in some sense these very ideals led to corners of the web which were just evil.

Of course, as the Internet went global and required physical infrastructure and government permissions, what you could and could not do became much more controlled. Child pornography was plain illegal, but freedom of speech was not, often because much of the core architecture and servers were based in democratic countries who were benefiting massively from the Web.

Of course the web came along and made piracy much much easier. As Paul Tassi states in Forbes, piracy is a 4 step process, while any conventional means of media consumption from the Old Big Media Houses is way more inconvenient. With laws differing across borders, delayed releases, abominations like DeCSS and so on, it was far easier to use a general purpose computer to circumvate all these measures.

In the last few years however, piracy and freedom of speech has come back to bite us. Rather, it has come to haunt the old bastions of power, governments, religions and media publishers. Faced with a series of attacks, the Web is now caught between the devil and the deep sea. On one side is the battle for intellectual property. On the other hand are repressive governments (even so-called democracies) where certain factions wish to curtail the one medium that is impossible to truly shutdown.

There are also the silos of Facebook, Google and a thousand walled App Gardens that are eating mouthfuls of our data and keeping it behind closed doors. They aren’t the worst part though.

I’m not scared that the Internet will die, but I’m scared that it could lose its essence. The essence of freedom, of equality, of opportunity and communication that has brought hope to many and improved countless lives immeasurably. If we the common people keep lying down as our freedoms are taken from us, we will lose the one chance to truly step into something new, to fully embrace human potential, and go back to watching the shiny rainbows on Blu-ray discs whose only use is as coasters. It is not as if we are powerless, we just need to be educated. After all in the case of SOPA/PIPA, mass protests were effective in sending the bill for reconsideration.

It is no secret that politics is financed by capitalists. Much of this money flows in from media conglomerates and thus politicians are puppets when the MPAA or RIAA decide to take out their battle axes on pirates. What the old media does not realize is that the Internet has levelled the playing field. It is now possible for anyone to publish high quality content. Rather than focusing on making it cheap and easy to spread their content, so that most users will be willing to pay for it legally, they continue to impose draconian laws on sharing, copying and accessing their media. The solution – piracy. When technologists like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon try to make it ever easier, they crawl back into their shells. A perfect example is HBO’s Game of Thrones.

There are fundamental problems with new bills that are tabled to deal with piracy. These laws are often framed in secret in a nexus of politics and old media houses, most notably ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), rather than in public scrutiny where rights groups and the general public can see what is happening. It was only as ACTA started to get ratified around the world that people realized what is happening. The result – plenty of EU countries have seen protests that have led to ACTA being put on hold. What is laughable is that the United States actually rejected Right to Information requests saying that it could be a threat to national security. The second problem is that all copyright laws have always focused far too much on tightening copyright regulations, and what it means for something to be copied, what requires royalties and what requires permission. Copyright was initially a way to give creators sufficient returns for their works, not how can I get the maximum money out of this. By tightening the noose, it is getting harder for artists to re-use other’s creativity to create even better works. In addition every anti-piracy effort has put costs on innocent third-parties, taken huge cuts from taxpayers money, and pushed technology that had non-infringing uses out of the market. For example, BitTorrent is a fascinating technology with huge potential for better Internet services, yet it has achieved negative connotations due to its use for piracy. In the aggregate, they reflect a disproportionate focus on the interests of a handful of large companies. It’s hard to think of a single example during this twenty-year period of copyright restrictions being repealed, relaxed, or any in any meaningful way liberalized. Finally, there is a great paradox between the Western world’s constant demands for the right to free speech on the Internet and the principles embodied in stronger copyright laws. For example, SOPA’s feature of allowing the shutdown of arbitrary websites without judicial hearing, ACTA’s removal of safe harbour protections and the outlawing of circumvention technology leads to the internet quickly toeing the line with new regulations. Ironically, even as SOPA seeks to outlaw technology like Tor, the US Department of Defense actively funds its development to help activists in repressive regimes like Iran.

The Internet has now reached its prime, e-commerce is commonplace, startups for media distribution are blossoming all over, our identities are now better known by Facebook and Google than by our Governments. Power and opinions flow over wires, free of the meddling of higher-ups. This is leading to politicians and other old bastions of power (cable TV, telephony) feeling lost, and so they are taking concrete steps to clamp down on what they consider a menace. They then repackage it and sell it to the public as ‘stealing’ or ‘content that can cause public unrest’. Caught between these two forces, the Internet could become a nanny state in the next few years.

Over 20 years after an international agreement that deregulated the Internet and led to a meteoric success story of capitalism and free markets above all else, the United Nations plans to establish “international control over the Internet”. In December 2012, Russia, China and others will push for:
  • allowing ISPs to charge ‘international’ fees for Internet traffic - this is just absurd. By its very nature the Internet is not supposed to have ‘boundaries’. It goes completely against Net Neutrality
  • Subsume under governmental bodies many of the tasks of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and others. These bodies currently operate solely on merit, technical competency and democratic votes, and as private bodies are free from governmental interference.
among others. Censorship is emerging stronger and stronger. Censorship across the world has been well covered, and I will not go into the details. Two things are relevant though. One is #IdiotSibal’s attempts at getting social networks to take down ‘offending’ content. It seems in our bid to compete with China, we’ve decided to one-man up them in censorship too. Shivam Vij has very correctly stated in Kapil Sibal doesn’t understand the Internet,
So Sibal and Tharoor think social media can cause riots, but it hasn’t actually done so yet. Now that Sibal and Tharoor are telling us there’s stuff out there that could make us kill each other, some of us will go looking for it out of curiosity and…
In neighbouring Pakistan, every Tom, Dick and Harry with complaints of online hate speech approaches the Lahore High Court. In India, Kapil Sibal wants to be the high court.
He wants to be judge, jury and executioner. And he wants to do it silently so we don’t get to know.
Google’s Transparency report on India clearly identifies politicians lack of ability to accept criticism.
In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from orkut that were critical of a local politician.
In the private sector, Reliance Communications has taken it upon itself to be the moral and economic guardian by obtaining ‘John Doe’ orders from a local court to ban file sharing websites in the days around a movie release. In sheer violation of Indian law which states that only the Department of Information Technology may request censorship, they then went and blocked websites country wide. It was as if SOPA was already passed in India. A John Doe order is the type of insanity that you think can only happen in movies until some lawyer actually dreams it up. Multiple, unknown, offenders can be acted against. Interestingly while Reliance stated that they were within law, no actual complaint was recieved. The court order and ban was based on speculation. I sent a Minority Report Precrime in action.

In retrospect there are 3 things (amongst others) that threaten the future of the Internet as a ‘commons’: Net neutrality, draconian copyright-laws and censorship. There is only one thing stopping that from happening - YOU.

Further reading:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The TT Incident

This incident is about those moments of pure magic that sometimes happen when two individuals have light bulbs go on in their head at the same instance based on a series of earlier shared experiences and context. No, not the soul mate sort. To convey the expression requires introducing you, the reader, to the back story. In essence this post is about me and Naman’s library adventures. It is a set of confessions which I hope will not get us kicked out of the library now that there is a change of guard.

Naman’s animosity with the library began sometime in the fourth year after Mr. K’s incompetency started getting on his nerves. Then, quite justifiably, he got banned from using the internet in the library for 5 days for stealing Mr K’s IP address for one full day and causing his work to stop. Although Naman claims he did not know whose IP it was he didn’t mind the happy co-incidence. That was the prick in the balloon! I have always been somewhat annoyed with the library’s arbitrary rules, how the staff is a stickler for them even under special circumstances and how easy it actually is to circumvent them. This was also, then, an experiment in how far we could go without being caught, although all these are just excuses to deny the fact that we wanted some childish fun and narcissistic attention. Our library violations begin with this SMS from Naman to me, dated August 31, 2011, 11am:

Who is the most fucking awesome? Bet #1. Who can get the most outrageous food items in library till they get caught. In other terms, who can smuggle food inside rc the longest before getting caught.

It didn’t take too long for Naman to start. He arrived a few days later into the library, all smiles, pockets bulging. Out of one packet same a sandwich. Mr. V. wandered in and set a crumpled plastic cup in front of Naman. I have to admit that I wasn’t too impressed yet. But then out of the second pocket came a plastic bag with tea, and he poured it into the cup and coolly had his breakfast in the library. In all his smugness he went and publicised his achievement :) Not to be outdone, I convinced certain people to go eat pizza with me that very night (this is a lie). When Naman wanted his delivered to him, I took it seriously and delivered it in the library. One Margherita eaten right under the watchful eyes of Dr. K.

Score TFA 1 - 0 library. (We are called Team Fucking Awesome because we were at that point inspired by Julien Smith’s The Short and Sweet Guide to Being Fucking Awesome and took it very seriously)

In time our food escapades fizzled out and we returned to the standard supply of biscuits, chocolates and chips to keep our hands busy while our minds (sometimes) churned over (a bit of) academic knowledge. Our dream still remains incomplete though: cook a packet of instant noodles in the library and consume it there.

Another day, a group of third year girls walked into the library after having celebrated someone’s birthday. They came armed with those annoying birthday trumpets (sometimes sweetly called a bhoppu). We had a hoot blowing raspberries loudly in the library, where silence is a law of nature. Hardly content with this, we stepped outside and (amongst raucous laughter) recorded this sample:

Then we went back to the library and forgot about it. While leaving we ensured this was played loudly and completely, but acted as if we didn’t know what was happening. Thus we left, taking a bit of everyone’s stress with us.

TFA 2 - 0 library.

Every one of these incidents have been during an exam, when the library is filled with students studying for their exams. I am not sure how it reflects on our character that we perform these acts when we should be hitting the books or letting others study in peace. We like to think we’re just injecting some fun into the otherwise serious atmosphere.

Towards the beginning of the final semester – Feb 7, 2012, 8:20pm to be precise – I had come for dinner and was going directly to the library. Naman had been playing table-tennis and directly arrived for dinner. He was using my rackets and ball, so he handed them over hoping I would lug them along everywhere I went. After a bit of discussion over who should keep them, he made the (rational) point that I should carry them and put them in my bag.

There was a flash moment, the kind of epiphany that was experienced by Einstein or Newton, when all their years of thinking collapsed into one beautiful result instantly. I had table-tennis rackets and a ball, I was going to the library… I had to just utter ‘Hey’ and it clicked instantly in Naman’s head too. We high five-d each other and let out a huge laugh, reveling in how the perfect next library prank had formed. The whole café was staring at us as we started in jubilation. The idea was set up, time for execution.

The equipment was rolled in, the surveillance was set up and the stunt done that very night. Too bad the library was filled mostly with geeks at that time. Hardly anyone raised their heads to pay us any attention.

TFA 3 - 0 library.

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