Friday, November 01, 2013

The Internet at 40: Reflections on Cyberspace

John Naughton - CC BY SA - Sebastiaan ter Burg 
We had a very interesting symposium this morning here in UCC on "The Internet at 40".  It followed two lectures by Professor John Naughton which he had given yesterday on the topic.  John's lectures developed themes from earlier lectures such as this one from March on 'Our Networked Future.'  He also drew on his recent book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet.  

The symposium was chaired by Professor Cormac Sreenan, and panellists were Karlin Lillington, Theresa Reidy, Alfred Moore and myself.  There were really interesting contributions from the audience as well.  It was organised by Ionad Bairre and Bettie Higgs, the Interim Vice President for Teaching and Learning.

Some of my thoughts were as follows (based on rudimentary notes I made in advance):

I wonder are some people now “pacified” by the web?  Is it the new opium of the people?  Has it replaced religion? What are the key “values” people seek online?  Maybe people look for “coolness” as a value.  “That’s a cool site; that’s a cool video”.  Slickness; humour; entertainment; shopping are all “values”.  All of this masks the fact that code is not neutral (as Lawrence Lessig has said).  Search results are not neutral.  The order of items on your Facebook timeline is not neutral.

However, there are exceptions to corporatisation, e.g. Wikipedia.  Also, activists can fight back on the “coolness” front – e.g. the recent video “Stop Watching  Us” which included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oliver Stone, John Cusack and  Lawrence Lessig .  The video was produced by a coalition of 100 organisations including the ACLU, EFF and EPIC.  Tim Berners Lee supports the coalition and the video has had 1 million views.  Stop SOPA campaigns were also positive example of activism.  Wikipedia went dark for a day.  

John Naughton speaks of permissionless innovation online, which can be good or bad.  My input on this:  Copyright law can stifle innovation.   History shows the extent of copyright protection has continuously been extended – both in what it covers and in duration.  We now have extremely long durations of copyright such as 70 years after the death of the author.  We have absurd scenarios such as an eBook of Alice in Wonderland with a note in the settings saying “The book cannot be read aloud”.  You cannot easily give your ebook to your partner, child or friend.  It’s not clear how your family will inherit your ebooks when you die.  More absurdity: Ebook vendors can possibly “rescind”  a book from your ebook reader even weeks after you've downloaded it.  Ironically, "1984" by George Orwell  was  rescinded from people’s ebooks in 2009.  

David Cameron said that Google might not have started in the UK.  Fair use in the USA is broader than in Europe.  We need to raise awareness of the limitations of copyright law, and variations between national laws. 

John Naughton refers to the generativity of the internet, as highlighted by Jonathan Zittrain.  My example to flesh this out:  Creative Commons is in a way an example of generativity.  (If you're not familiar with Creative Commons, see  People can use Creative Commons licensed works to publicise their work, but still charge for commercial use of their work.  

Important reforms of copyright law have been proposed in the recent report of the Copyright Review Committee - Modernising Copyright.  Unfortunately, the committee is somewhat restrained by EU law in the area, and there's only so much it can do within the confines of EU law.  It is worrying that intellectual property was elevated to the level of a fundamental right in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (see Article 17(2)).  Hopefully this will be interpreted in a benign manner by the courts but we can't be sure.  Don't get me wrong - I am not opposed to copyright but I'm concerned about maximalist application of copyright without due regard to rights of users and consumers.

A flavour of thoughts from other speakers (roughly paraphrased):

Alfred Moore:
Recently, there has been a neoliberal rejection of democracy altogether, an emphasis on the free market and the consumer.  There is a disdain for democracy, but we need democratic principles to be to the forefront.

Karlin Lillington:
Data retention laws allow a shocking level of surveillance, akin to giving the keys to your house to the GardaĆ­.  For human rights defenders (e.g. in Pakistan), anonymity is crucial.  See
Engineers and scientists need to learn how to code for human rights and code for society.  There's now a Tech Defenders Network.

Theresa Reidy:
Social media has had a transformative effect on politics, but we need more research on its effects.  Can it be a force for citizen engagement?  Can it challenge the dominance of elites?  Twitter has transformed the dynamic of politics, with the possibility of public two-way conversations between politicians and voters.

John Naughton:
A lot of the surveillance of the web stems from 9/11.  The Snowden revelations have had a huge impact - will they lead to a crisis or merely a scandal?  Engineers need to know about ethics.  Engineers and architects designed the concentration camps in the second world war, but what of the ethical dimension?
Recommended books:  Tim Wu, The Master Switch and Dave Eggers, The Circle.

General Discussion:
How do we raise awareness of these issues?  Can they be included in secondary school curriculum, e.g. in Civic, Social and Personal Education?  At university level, can we ensure that ethical issues are considered?  One way of doing this is to find a staff member in a Department who is passionate on these issues.  Then, they can include technical activities in a module (not necessarily a specific module on ethics) which raise awareness, e.g. set students a task to investigate privacy breaches by apps.
Historical perspectives are vital - people need to be able to see what happened with previous new technologies; previous abuses of power; previous political developments.
Literature and arts shine a light on these areas, e.g. E.M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops' (1909).