Jan 112016

Watching the 32c3 conference videos for free (which is relevant), and coming across the inevitable “the Internet is dead”, “corporations have bored the spirit of the Internet to death”, etc. It’s a pretty common meme amongst those who somehow believe that the Internet used to be free.

The Internet was never free, but it did have the appearance of being free.

Of course we have become used to paying for access to the Internet, but that monthly payment to the ISP doesn’t pay for the Internet as a whole. As an example none of the money you pay your ISP reaches me to help me pay for the server this web page is on. Supposedly I can ‘monetise’ your visits by publishing adverts on my web site; in practice it doesn’t. At least not for low traffic sites.

And things like Facebook or Twitter do cost lots of money to run; enough that many of the large successful companies took a long time before they became profitable.

Of course I’ve been concentrating on the monetary meaning of “free” but this applies to a certain extent to the other meaning of free – you can’t post content to Facebook that they don’t agree with (although in practice very little is censored with the main victim being pictures of breastfeeding). A company like Facebook is in this game to make money and whilst they are not going to censor your content for no reason, neither are they going to fight too hard for your free speech.

In the end you can only exercise your freedom of speech on your own servers. But with the exception of a few weirdos like me, most of us are not keen on running servers.

All normal people want to do is run an application that lets them “do stuff” and the conventional way to implement an Internet application is for an application running on the person’s desktop to speak across the Internet to a server – for example the web works this way. The big problem with such an approach particularly when something like Facebook becomes almost ubiquitous is that you are giving a large central organisation a lot of data about yourself.

Of course everyone who is not up to anything nefarious is not bothered by that, right? Well perhaps, but there are other aspects of sending all your data to a company who desperately needs to monetise your data and your eyeballs. Such as targeted advertising. And worse.

The conventional way. There are of course what could be called unconventional applications that communicate across the Internet without a centralised server managing it all. These are commonly called “peer-to-peer” (or P2P) applications and are commonly used to share files; very commonly files that the copyright owner would rather not be shared (films, applications, music, etc.). So P2P has a bit of a rogue reputation.

But it is merely a means for communicating and does not dictate what is communicated. There is nothing to stop someone from implementing a P2P-based application that communicates “posts” that are the equivalent of Facebook posts. Such an application :-

  1. Would continue to use the web browser as a display engine.
  2. Run as a separate “service” on the desktop to send and receive P2P posts in the background; displaying relevant ones on request.
  3. Automatically encrypt all postings so that they can only be decrypted by the relevant audience. Keep the automatic encryption hidden to avoid scaring those who just can’t be bothered with all that.

Of course as I am not going to be writing this (I simply don’t have the time), I have no right to say how it should be written! But writing such an application would be very beneficial if we could persuade people to use it rather than the monolith that is Facebook. Unlike some people, I don’t believe that Facebook is intentionally evil, but because of the centralisation of social networking in the hands of Facebook, it has the potential to be evil.

Those who want the Internet to be free (as in freedom) need to put their money where their mouth is and write the code.




Nov 172011

I have an Android phone that automatically uploads photos to Google; you have an iPhone that automatically uploads photos to Apple’s iCloud service. We both want to send photos to a Facebook gallery for some friends.

To solve this problem, we either have to copy photos manually from Google to Facebook, or make use of some special application to do the work for us. But isn’t this the wrong solution to the problem ?

If the different propriety clouds used an open standard for uploading photos, it would be possible to automatically upload to Google from an iPhone, upload to Apple’s iCloud from an Android phone, or … to some new competitor. Or even for those of us who prefer to do our own thing, to our own servers.

As someone who mixes and matches things, I have “islands of data” in different clouds – some photos are uploaded to Facebook (when I can be bothered), some are in Googleland, and some (the ones I regard as the better ones) are uploaded to my own server. And that is just photos; there are also contacts, notes, documents, drawings, etc. None of this can be easily moved from one island to another – sure I could move it manually, but why would I want to do that ? Computers after all are supposed to be good at automation.

This is all down to the convenience of the cloud providers of course – Google makes it easy to use their services and hard to use others because it’s in their interests to do so, Apple is similarly inclined to keep your imprisoned in their “perfumed prison”. And so on.

But it’s all our data and they should make it easy to move our data around. This not only would be useful for us, but less obviously would actually benefit the cloud providers. After all if I find it tricky moving from one online photo gallery “cloud” to another, I’m less inclined to do so.

Making it easier to move cloud data from one provider to another not only means it is easier for a customer to “escape” one proprietary cloud, but it is also easier for a customer of another cloud to move in. And it would not necessarily be that difficult to do – just produce a standardised API that works across multiple different cloud providers, and let the application developers loose.

To a certain extent this is possible right now – for example, Facebook has an API and Twitter has an API and it is possible to produce code to send status updates to both places. But the equivalent to update a Google Plus status does not seem to be available, and combining status updates in one tool just isn’t there as yet – I have a simple script which sits on top of two other tools (and very nicely pops up a window, a text input box, or takes the status on the command line). But with a standardised API, the code would be much easier to write.


May 092011

Today there is a lot of fuss about the information on just who has obtained a super injunction to prevent the publication of details of their sordid private life being “published” via a Twitter post. It is probable that the relevant Twitter post is just wrong, but more interesting than that is the reaction of the old media. And an apparent misunderstanding of just what Twitter is.

The old media is complaining that there is effectively two rules – one for them and a quite different one for Twitter users. Well, no it isn’t quite like that. The relevant Twitter user – if he or she is within the jurisdiction of a UK court – is just as guilty of breaching the injunction as an old media company who published the story themselves. In practice, it is not possible to stop a Twitter user publishing before being prevented from doing so – there are just too many Twitter users out there from stopping them.

What will be the effect of this in the medium term? Basically it means that the old media will not be able to make any money at the old meaningless “three people in a bed” story – they will still be able to sell newspapers with real news, but meaningless exposés of someone’s private life with no real public interest will be a lot less likely. With any luck. And good. The news is not made any better by knowing that celebrity X slept with gold-digger Y unless that celebrity is genuinely in public life and making a moral stand on such issues.

The funny thing is that people somehow think that this is a new “problem”. I can remember the Spycatcher issue way back in the day where a publisher was prohibited from publishing the autobiography of a former MI5 agent in England, but the book was widely available elsewhere in the world (including unbelievably in Scotland!). Although the mechanisms were different, the basics are the same – one group of people are not allowed to tell the story, but another are.

Now onto the misunderstanding of Twitter itself. When someone “tweets” some item of news on Twitter, the company itself is not responsible – except to the extent that they are obligated to take it down given appropriate legal action. The person responsible for the content of the tweet is the tweeter themselves. The Twitter company themselves are no more responsible for the content than the newspaper delivery boy is responsible for what is in the newspaper.

Having said that, I believe that super injunctions are wrong. Injunctions to stop a story being published are all very fine, although they are relatively unobtainable for an ordinary person. And yes ordinary people do sometimes appear in news stories. But preventing the fact of an injunction stopping a story being published is wrong.

Mar 062010

I have just seen a news item on TV about what the pundits think the effect of social media (Twitter, Facebook and the like) will have on the upcoming UK election. The general consensus was that it probably will not make much difference, and I’m not going to disagree.

What was amusing though was that they seemed to have concentrated in what the politicians might say in their tweets or on their Facebook pages – missing the point of social networking entirely. Most of us do not pay much attention to what politicians say online on various social media sites; we stick to what our usual contacts say. It is what they say that may influence how we vote in elections.

Of course just like “water cooler debates”, it will not have a great influence over how we vote – it is just one more piece of information.

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