Writing on the wall [alternative title: Shared Secrets]

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Mar-Apr 2011

The nearest thing the Internet has to a central authority, ICANN, only regulates the names and numbers that identify each connected computer. It has no control over the flow of information. That is because the Internet isn’t a single network, it is an ‘inter-net’, an agreement to exchange data between privately owned and controlled networks. Often this data exchange, called ‘peering’, happens without any payment - many of the world’s Internet Exchanges are mutually owned cooperatives. There are parallels with the growth of the international postal service, which the anarchist Peter Kropotkin cited as an example of how a complex system could run cooperatively, without a central authority.

Governments like to control the flow of information but as John Gilmore, quoted in this column before, said “the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. The ‘Great Firewall’ built by the Chinese government has succeeded in limiting what information its citizens can access but it is not impermeable and most attempts by governments to censor the net have very limited success.

At the same time there is a change in the attitude to the control people have over their personal information. Some commentators claim that social networks are replacing private channels like email – that the new generation of net users is happy not only to share personal details on Facebook but also to conduct one-to-one conversations in public on Twitter. Perhaps this changing view of privacy is a factor in shaping the reaction to the latest release of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks.

Some have claimed that most of the revelations in the cables are unimportant, mere gossip – although it is widely believed that the decision of Amazon to stop hosting the Wikileaks site on its servers was because of big pressure from the US government. Arguably it is the nature of gossip that social networks change, no longer whispered behind hands but tweeted or posted on a Facebook wall. While the cables often confirm what people already suspected, that public confirmation is important. Paranoid suspicion has become cynical knowledge.

Perhaps this shift in attitude is why net enthusiasts across the world have taken direct action in support of Wikileaks. The denial of service attacks by the “anonymous” group of hackers was little more than an irritant for a giant like Visa but is an interesting glimpse of the future of protest. Amazon’s action has led to a proliferation of ‘mirror sites’ so that the content is now – effectively – impossible to remove. By stamping on the fire the giant has merely scattered the burning embers. Perhaps we should add that, while the net interprets censorship as damage, the net community sees it as a provocation and a challenge.


Box in same issue on tablet computers

Taking the tablets

Apple doesn’t so much invent things as re-invent them. The iPhone took an old idea –  a phone with a built in ‘PDA’ – and made it easy and intuitive. Now everyone makes iPhones. So it is with the iPad – a small computer with a touch screen was not a new idea, but Apple made it attractive and simple to use. Many dismissed the iPad as a big iPhone without the phone. But that is the point: it lets you do common things like access web pages and look at Youtube clips without worrying about folders and files and the rest of the complications of using a computer. It’s casual – you don’t have to open it up, balance it on your knees and wait for it to boot, but it’s big enough to browse the net or read an e-book. The simplicity can also be a weakness – the inability to play Flash animations and movies on websites is a big drawback. Apple claims that the forthcoming HTML5 standard will replace Flash anyway but it underlines the point: with iPad you’re in Apple’s world and no way out. There’s an alternative with competitor tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy, which runs Google’s Android OS. But here too it is designed to fill the casual gap between smartphone and laptop, and limits to functionality are part of the concept. You gain a more open system but you lose some of the Apple polish.