Posts by Nancy Scola

Creating Change (Dot Org)? Blogging Network Prompts $100k Donation to LGBT Groups

July 13, 2009

Nancy Scola

There's an interesting yet somewhat below-the-radar case of bloggers creating change through public pressure and a bit of behind the scenes negotiation. In this case, that change comes in the form of a $100,000 check.

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Peer-to-Patent Closes Shop [UPDATED]

July 9, 2009

Nancy Scola

The Peer-to-Patent project, spearheaded by Beth Noveck in her law professor days before she became Deputy U.S. CTO for open government, often gets talked about as one of the more successful examples of how citizens can be invited in to do the actual work of governing. Alas, from now on, it will have to be talked about in the past tense. The U.S. Patent Office has chosen not to renew the project.

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Can It Still Be Facebook if Your Mom's On It?

September 27, 2006

Nancy Scola

Facebook launched in February 2004, four years or so from when I finished undergrad, so I'm part of the post-Facebook generation. Still, I'm big into Facebook because the PAC I work for was included when they recently broadened the network to include selected businesses and organizations. We can all be big into Facebook now -- they threw open the doors earlier today, making it a more ore less open network.

It's worth understanding just how this expansion is gonna work. (Sorry, links are only good if you're logged in to Facebook. Of course, now that it's open to everybody, they're good if you want 'em to be.) Facebook started by limiting profiles to the small playground of the university they were tied to. Thus, information on the site was corralled according to .edu email addresses and the user's Facebook universe was limited to his or her college, as well as the few students at other schools that they had chosen to connect with. At some point, Facebook expanded out first to high schools and then to a select few companies and organizations. But they all worked the same way Facebook always had -- they were in Facebook parlance "authenticated networks," where the fact that you belonged to the group was proven by the domain in your email address.

What Facebook did today is to open up the system so that anyone with any old email address at all can join, create a profile, "poke" other users (an innocuous term today that the college kids I know don't seem to find funny), and the like. Identity is only proven on the basis of email address ownership -- meaning that all I have to do to join up is to enter in and then respond back to an email sent to that address. This process, Facebook says, guarantees that profiles are created only by "a real person."

A real person, maybe, but not necessarily the real person I'm going to represent myself as on Facebook. There's little (as far as I can tell) to stop me from creating multiple profiles and picking from a Chinese menu of characteristics for each. That may sound simple, but it's a complete upending of the "one person, one profile" idea of identity that has carried Facebook this far.

Under the new system, one thing these unauthenticated-but-"real person" users get to tell to Facebook is where they live. And where that is is important, because new users aren't assigned to an authenticated network but are instead shunted into a "regional network." Regional network have long been a part of Facebook. I, for example, belong to the "New York, NY" network, an identity that is pretty powerful. It gives me rights and privileges to interact with the profiles of the one or two other New Yorkers on Facebook.

So with the expansion, Facebook has been ripped from the context that nurtured it this far. In the Facebook 1.0 days the core Facebook user could be sure that his or her likes and dislikes, the latest news on breakups and makeups, was mostly going to his or her friends and possibly to other college kids like themselves. Then came high schoolers and then staffers on some high-profile organizations. Each change exposed them a bit more beyond the core comfort zone of their campus, but the situation was still tolerable. Facebook was still a comfortable playground for the college and college-ish set.

That's what Facebook is, really -- a playground in which you can create your most perfect, most fun, most dapper and daring self. I'm a grown-up of a certain age, and yet I spent several minutes yesterday agonizing over which books to list as my favorites in my Facebook profile. Agony, yes, but still a great deal of fun! It was a chance to decide exactly how to my present myself to my wider social circle. That's a chance you don't get in the same way in real life. Still, no matter how daring I want to be, there's only one real "Nancy Scola" in the system, because that's how early Facebook was architected.

That's because Facebook 1.0 was built to be a walled garden, a protected space, an online Princeton (the school). Facebook 2.0 is more like boundless and boundaryless New York City. And the company knows it. With today's "expansion," Facebook made a point of detailing for folks the added security and privacy features in place to protect them from prying eyes. They've added additional "report" links throughout the site; one click and Facebook sees that you've flagged inappropriate behavior. More important however, is the great emphasis that Facebook is placing on the idea that it's the job of users to protect themselves online. See this, from the notice posted by the company to announce the expansion:

You can prevent new users from seeing you, and you can control what they can see about you on the site...
[I]f you see something suspicious, offensive, or inappropriate, please report it.

We are putting as many controls in as possible and are always looking for new ways to protect our users from spam and inappropriate behavior. Remember that you control what you do on the site, including whom you add as a friend, and what information you make visible to the people around you. (emphasis in the original)

In other words, you're on your own so lock your doors and don't talk to strange strangers. That last bit is, I think, important. Facebook, it seems, is of the mind that we should be most concerned about inappropriate uses of the site -- stalking and the like. But I'd argue that with that sort of thinking they're missing the point.

It's not that I don't want scary people looking at my Facebook profile. It's that I don't want my mom looking at my Facebook profile. (Love you ma, nothing personal.) Take this for example. Facebook has a feature which, while I'm not sure it's part of this new expansion, is so un-early-Facebook as to make it a stand-in for the recent changes. Enter in your login name and password for your Gmail, AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail accounts and Facebook will spider through your address book to tell you who you know already has a profile. And with one click, a note is sent to your contact asking if you might be Facebook friends.

If they happen to be in my same regional network -- so for me, the one for little old New York City -- then bam!, they've got instant access to my profile.

With that, Facebook me is the me I am to my entire real world address book. (And with Gmail, that's everyone I've ever emailed.) I'm no longer protected by the narrow confines of the organization I work for. It's almost too much for me to take, to open myself to inspection by every possible future employer/professor/friend/enemy in the world. I have to imagine that that's how a lot of college kids are going to feel, too.

Of course, a good question to ask at this point is, what's the alternative for Facebook? Once they started expanding out to businesses and organizations, did they really want to be in the business of picking and choosing who gets to be on the site and who is excluded from the fun? But my name's not Mark Zuckerberg and so I don't have to answer the question.

What does all this mean for politics? That's a question for another post. But there's a lot of folks working in electoral politics who see social networks/networking as the next wave, the new way that we'll bring people back into the political process. Facebook 2.0 shows how difficult it's going to be to not screw it up.

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Fuera de la Revolucion (de la Internet)

April 24, 2006

Nancy Scola

Santa Clara, a town in the Villa Clara province just east of Havana, is a five-hour boat ride from Miami, but for Cuban Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez the U.S. mainland is just a mouse-click away. At least it was, until Fariñas, a psychologist-turned-citizen journalist, sat down in an Internet café in last January to email dispatches to his contacts in Florida. On this day, his emails bounced back.

The day before, Fariñas had been featured in a front-page Miami Herald story about a rise in violence against dissidents in Cuba. This is Castro’s payback, he thought. Borrowing a page from the protest playbook of Mohandas Gandhi, he stopped eating. Fariñas later told the journalist-rights organization Reporters Without Borders that he was willing to die for the cause. “If I must be a martyr for Internet access,” Fariñas said, “so be it.”

For 56 days, Fariñas ate nothing and drank nothing. Two weeks ago, his health deteriorating rapidly, he checked himself into a Santa Clara hospital and began receiving food and water intravenously. But his emails are still bouncing back.

Fariñas, a Cuban urban professional, may have been stunned by his sudden disconnect from the rest of the world via the Internet, but for most Cubans, that chasm is a fact of life. More than 11 million people live in Cuba today, yet only 120,000 or so have the government’s permission to go online. That’s but a tiny fraction of the Cuban population. Picture it this way: if Cuba was New York City – indeed, the two places have very roughly about the same population – just those New Yorkers living in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope would be allowed online.

In Cuba, connectivity, the ability to reach out to the rest of the world via the Internet, is rationed out in tiers. Access to the full Internet (or more accurately, the websites that make up the World Wide Web) is a heavily restricted commodity in Cuba. Professionals, including doctors, professors, and some journalists are widely permitted access; in Old Havana, the El Aleph center is open only to members of the state-run Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba. At the Capitalito cybercafé in Havana, getting online requires that you flash a foreign passport. Those Cubans who want to get online from home petition Havana for permission, and those denied are shunted onto the Cuban National Intranet, a collection of about a thousand government-approved sites on the .cu top-level domain.

Cubans unable to access the full Internet can register for email-only accounts. Such accounts cost a good percentage of the average Cuban salary and, as Guillermo Fariñas found out, are at the mercy of the whims of the Cuban government, but are as a matter of course widely available.

Not surprisingly, there was a brisk black market-trade of email accounts and Internet access passwords, until a recent government crackdown. Under Resolution 180/2003, home users can go online only via special lines of the government-owned Etecsa telephone company, paid for only in U.S. dollars. It’s a move, says Amnesty International, that further “prevents ordinary Cuban people” from getting online.

The technology professionals and bureaucrats charged with running the Internet in Cuba contend that the dearth of access isn’t Castro’s plan, but a consequence of the long-running U.S. embargo, known as El bloqueo (“the blockade”) in Cuba. (The United Nations holds an annual vote calling for an end to the embargo; last vote, the U.S. stood with Israel, the Marshall Islands, and the Pacific island nation of Palau in voting “no.”) Without access to U.S. vendors, they contend, they simply lack the infrastructure to let more Cubans online. In a 2001 interview with CIO Magazine, Luis Mourelos, an IT Director with the Cuban Academy of Sciences, said that the island’s Internet users shared just 10 megabytes-per-second of bandwidth. (That was five years ago, but in comparison, the cable connection in my apartment delivers about one-tenth of that access for my use alone.)

Perhaps the embargo has hobbled Cuba’s efforts to build an IT infrastructure. But in that same interview, Mourelos seems to indicate that the Internet Cuba has is the Internet Cuba wants. “In one way or another every country decides to what degree you can access the Internet and what you can't do and where you can go and where you can't,” says Mourelos. “Every country has a right to at least think about how to protect its culture, its society and its people from things that could be damaging to them.”

Beatriz Alonso, the head of Citmatel, one of the country’s two ISPs, echoed Mourelos in an interview with Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. The Internet, she said, must exist in harmony with the “ethics and humanism” that define Cuba. She’s backed by a 1996 government decree that states that Internet access must not be “in violation of the moral principles of Cuban society.” What they don’t want, says Alonso, is to expose Cubans to information on “pornography, terrorism and other evils,” the sort of thing, she says, “common in capitalist countries, especially the United States.”

That Havana’s view of the Internet is rooted in a distaste for America is not all that surprising. Biographer Georgie Anne Geyer has written that Castro is consumed by a U.S.-hatred that Jose Cohen, a former Cuban intelligence officer, has described as “a macabre obsession.” In those early of the Cuban revolution begun by Castro in 1953, he denounced artists and intellectuals with ties to the U.S. with the phrase “dentro de la revolución, todo; fuera de la revolución, nada!” (“Within the revolution, all; outside the revolution, nothing!”)

That Castro sees the Internet as a threat to that dominance is perhaps reflected in the fact that, according to the 2005 U.S. Human Rights Report, Cuban authorities regularly cut Internet access before political events. Last April, the report states, Internet access to the lone cybercafé in Santiago de Cuba, 540 miles southeast of Havana, was turned off just days before local elections.

As someone who was, until recently, online and unregulated, Fariñas, as director of the Miami-connected Cubanacán Press, is outside the revolution, way outside. Fariñas’ hunger strike began when his government-assigned email account set off a broader online political storm. The Miami Herald article that Fariñas believes provoked the government’s wrath described his e-mailed account of an incident in which pro-government Cubans challenged him to denounce Castro. As he fell to his knees shouting “down with Fidel!” the group beat him about his back, head, and arms. (The Herald calls the tactic an “act of repudiation,” an old revolutionary technique returning to favor among pro-Castro partisans.)

From Cuba, to China, to the U.S.
For those of us who take as an article of faith the understanding of the Internet as a libertarian wonderland that is popular in the U.S. – indeed, the sort of place where a Guillermo Fariñas can cause a Fidel Castro to quake in his combat boots – it can be eye-opening to see things from the Cuban perspective. After last year’s U.N. World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, Granma editorialized: “Those that advocate an unlimited Information Society do so in the midst of a global neo-liberal economy designed to benefit multinational companies and millionaires.” They continued:

Their primary concern is business and profits. They have absolutely no interest in finding ways to control the proliferation of pornography (of any kind) or of neo-Nazi or ultra-rightwing websites that teach young people hate, racism and xenophobia… The new informatics entrepreneurs no interest in slowing down the escalation of anti-culture on the web in favor of prioritizing art, education, enlightenment and ethics.

This is the Internet as a haven for heathens, a capitalist tool in the end serves to hurt the honest and humble citizen. Not altogether surprising for Cuba, but what’s perhaps a bit more powerful to consider is that the understanding of the Internet underlying the Cuban vision – that of not an ethereal force for good, but of a resource to shaped and sanded to meet circumstantial needs and wants – is gaining traction elsewhere.

The OpenNet Initiative, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, conducts regular surveys of what subset of the Internet users have access to in different parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, for example, rejects sex, drugs, and rock and roll; quite literally – information on homosexuality, sites promoting marijuana, are dropped from the Internet there (as are the official sites of the Church of Scientology and Amnesty International). In Singapore, the government promotes its responsibility to provide its citizens with a filtered Internet that “safeguard(s) social values and racial and religious harmony.”

Then there’s China, recently in the news for its partnership with Google to produce a search engine which strips information on democracy, human rights, and other topics that Beijing finds objectionable. (Ben Edelman, a former Berkman researcher and a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard, sees important differences between the China and Cuba approaches. Edelman says there are two ways that a government can control the how its people interact with the Internet – keeping them from it completely or shaping what they do with it. There’s a tension says Edelman, between access and economic growth. Under the Cuban model, “growth is held back.” Considering Beijing’s eagerness to be a player in the world economy, “there’s no wonder why the Chinese choose to filter” instead.)

Here in the United States, it’s not as much a matter of Washington governing the Internet as it is of AT&T, Verizon, and other big business asserting control over what happens on their networks. There’s a debate simmering before Congress about whether network owners should be able to shape – and thus make buckets of money from – the content that ships through their pipes. Those fighting to preserve “net neutrality,” as the concept is known, wonder whether difference between an AT&T-shaped Internet and a Castro-controlled Internet is one of kind or of degree.

What Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, AT&T, Verizon are doing is a challenge to the Internet itself. Early Internet developers created a new order based on an “end-to-end” architecture, where this new tool was a neutral conduit through which information was shipped back and forth. Power over the system was in the hand of the end users, the then tens and now many millions of folks who joined the wave. Today, it’s as much a matter of norms – a shared belief that that’s just the way that the Internet is – as it is of architecture. And it’s a norm under assault.

Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, co-author of the new book Who Controls the Internet?, sees us trending toward an Internet carved into ever smaller parts. “The Web was conceived as one global medium, by its nature open and free,” writes Wu, “but countries like China are pushing hard to divide that global network into a system of Balkanized national networks.” These attempts, says Wu, are “quietly succeeding.”

The big fear, beyond China, beyond Cuba, is that we’re moving down a road away from one global network and toward Internet fiefdoms presided over by different lords. We may well one day find ourselves in a world where with the Internet is made up a Cuban Internet designed by Fidel Castro; a Chinese Internet governed by Beijing, Google, and other willing partners; and, if American telecom companies have their way, a Verizon Internet and an AT&T Internet as well.

Who Controls Who Can Connect?
Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez lies in a hospital bed in Santa Clara, fed intravenously. Through the Paris office of Reporters Without Borders. I’m given the phone number to the Fariñas family home. I dial, and it rings and rings and rings until my call is dropped. I would send him an email but, well, you know. I’m a writer in New York, Fariñas is a journalist in Santa Clara, and we’re cut off. That’s the point, of course.

That’s the point and that’s the trend, taking the Internet out of the hands of those using it to connect with friends or overthrow their governments, and handing it to governments, to businesses – to everyone but the millions of those who made the Internet into what it is today. If that happens, someday soon, we might, like Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez, be dying to get back the Internet as we once knew it.

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