Web 3.0: Trust Nothing

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve always avoided using the term “Web 2.0.” I think it was supposed to mean that now the web is social—but it was always social to me, so calling it Web 2.0 just made me roll my eyes. To be fair, the birth of Web 2.0 does represent a time when people became more aware of the social nature of the web that was always there.

As much as the phrase “Web 2.0” has always irritated me, I was  found this tweet by Zeynep Tufekci compelling:

Web 1.0: It’ all about information! Web 2.0: Let’s go social! Web 3:0: Weaponized/monetized fraud; bots & trolls polluting the public sphere; organized attention manipulation ops; censorship via information glut, distraction and undermining credibility: Internet of Fake Things!

I believe we will look back on the first fifteen years of this century as kinder, gentler times. Consider for example the idea that we can use the web to gather meaningful public comment on issues. We used to really believe that, didn’t we? But in 2017 when the US Federal Communications Commission called for public comments on the issue of whether to repeal net neutrality rules, more than a million comments were faked. Web 3.0 is the recognition that we live in an adversarial environment, and the source of everything needs to be verified.

We live in the era of Boaty McBoatface. In 2016 when the British government asked for the public to vote on the name of its new polar research ship, the name Boaty McBoatface was voted to the top by internet denizens. (In the end the ship was named the RSS David Attenborough, but Boaty McBoatface was used to name an autonomous underwater vehicle carried by the Attenborough.) The story is funny, except when you ponder the fact that going forwards people are going to seriously hesitate before asking for public input on naming anything.  Certainly they’ll never be so naïve again to promise to use the top-voted name.

We increasingly live in an adversarial online environment. The phishing messages I am getting have gotten better and better over the last year. At Georgia Tech we have an email address for reporting phishing attempts to our network services organization. One phishing attempt I sent in got returned to me with a polite message, “This is actually a real message.”  I sent it back again—look more closely. And in fact it was a phishing attempt. OK, maybe someone was just having a bad day, but these things are getting harder and harder to detect. As I try to coach my parents and children in safe internet use, I have finally moved to simply telling them: Don’t click on a link in an email, ever. No matter how sure you are it’s real. Go type in the address of the website you are trying to reach and access it from there.

The cataclysm approaching us is The Internet of Things. We are increasingly surrounded by devices that can listen to us or change things in our environment, and our ability to keep those things secure is dubious.  Keith Lowell Jensen quipped, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves.” If you think getting brigaded by trolls on Twitter is unpleasant now, imagine when they control your home smart speaker, light switches, and front door.

We will, of necessity, move to a new age of locked-down identities and verified information. The internet users of the 2020s will look back on us as quaint in our openness and trust. And we will find new ways to be open and trusting in smaller groups and more locked-down communications media. If you want to leave a comment for the FCC, please authenticate with your national web ID. It’s a sad but necessary transition. Unless we want to give up on the idea of public commentary altogether, which would be sadder.

The web was always social, but with Web 2.0 the public became more aware of it. The web was always an adversarial environment in need of more security, and with Web 3.0 we, sadly, became more aware of it.

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Categories: social computing Tags: ,

Beyond Net Neutrality—All the Places Our Markets are Broken

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Net neutrality has always struck me as a weirdly radical idea. Isn’t allowing companies to offer premium services at a higher price how our world works? I don’t particularly like that some people get to squeeze into coach seats and others get first class, but that’s fundamental to free enterprise.

Getting rid of net neutrality rules would be a great idea if markets for internet service worked. Here’s what we’d need: choice and transparency. Each household would have to be able to switch ISPs without a prohibitive cost in time or money. And as you shopped for an ISP, you’d need transparency—to really know what you are buying, and how much it will cost. You would know the speed of service you’re getting and that you won’t be throttled without your knowledge.

Then people would vote with their feet, paying money to companies that offer good service at a fair price. Sure, one ISP might make a deal with Bing to make them faster than Google—but then people who like Google wouldn’t use that ISP. And maybe the managers of that ISP would decide that giving unequal access wasn’t such a good idea after all. People who have more modest needs could buy plans that cost less, and others could get new features not currently available for a premium. The possibility of higher profit margins for premium features would drive innovation.  Except none of this works without choice and transparency.

Are we likely to get either choice or transparency without government regulation?  I’d bet money against it. I’ve already been secretly throttled by more than one ISP, and I had no idea that would happen when I signed up for the plan. There are only a few available service providers in most areas. Neither a wealth of options nor clarity on what you are paying for are likely to happen. For that reason, we need net neutrality rules.

All of this became clearer to me after I taught net neutrality in my Computers and Society class this fall. There’s nothing quite like teaching something to help you understand it. Stepping back from net neutrality, something struck me: There are lots of other places where we don’t have either choice or transparency.

To have a fair, functioning market, we need good information. But good information is surprisingly rare, as any one of the nearly half a million people who bought Volkswagen cars with falsified environmental data can tell you.  Even if a company isn’t committing deliberate fraud like VW, how can you know how reliable that car is really going to be? How can you tell if that organic produce is any healthier for you than the conventional produce that costs much less?  How can you tell if the doctor you went to is competent if there are no easily accessible statistics on outcomes for past patients?  The structure of our society is built on the idea of fair markets, but to a large degree those fair markets don’t exist because of lack of information.

Democrats tend to take a consumer protection view of regulation—the government should actively work to protect citizens. Republicans tend to take a free market view—let companies do what they want, and feedback and demand from consumers will drive innovation. Whichever view you take, here’s something we all can agree on: that transparency is fundamental.  Whether we take a free market or consumer protection approach, nothing will work without the availability of accurate information in a form people can understand.

Some people would argue that market forces will lead to the production of that information—but that’s simply not true. For example, it’s immensely useful for consumers to know how many calories are in foods they order at restaurants. (The cheeseburger has half the calories of the Caesar salad at Cheesecake Factory—who would’ve guessed?)  You could say, if consumers value that information, then they will only patronize restaurants with calories on menus. But did that actually ever happen? Of course not. Not until laws were passed requiring large chain restaurants to put calorie information on menus. Starting in May 2018 in the US, consumers can make smarter choices, and market pressure can lead to healthier offerings if that’s what customers want. The whole system doesn’t work without the information. Information is a prerequisite for the formation of a fair market, not a consequence.

In the absence of a fair market, net neutrality solves the problem. And if what we value is innovation, it fosters innovation in an intriguing way: new companies have an easier time getting a start when they don’t need to pay a premium for bandwidth.  It’s a strangely radical idea, but I like it. And I wonder if there are other areas where ideas like this would be useful. Healthcare neutrality, perhaps?

I’m feeling like my one semester of high-school economics is not adequate preparation to write about this subject. If any economists out there want to correct errors or add some nuance, please leave me a comment!

Computing Challenges We Can’t Solve with Research: Simple Ideas and Platform Lock

September 22, 2017 3 comments

Critical problems for computing and society are increasingly economic. It’s not that we don’t know how to fix them—it’s that a purely market economy model to fund software development doesn’t support some simple things that would make the world a better place.

My students and I research and design collaborative computing systems. We start by studying existing groups and trying to understand their needs. For example, Kurt Luther studied animators trying to work on collaborative projects with teams of fifty or more artists. Based on what he learned, he built a project management tool for creative collaboration that tried to balance decentralized and centralized creative decision making. Jill Dimond worked with the nonprofit Hollaback, which is trying to end street harassment, and helped redesign their website with a federated structure that helped them to rapidly spread around the world. In these cases, as researchers were able to understand the problem, and innovate to solve it.

Lately though, we’ve been exploring problems and finding solutions that are straightforward but impossible to realize. The problems are two-fold: things that are too simple to make for meaningful research problems, and there is a barrier of platform lock.

For example, a team of GT students led by Hayley Evans found that people trapped in the economic crisis in Venezuela are increasingly using Facebook Groups for barter of basic necessities. It’s no longer possible to buy diapers at a fair price, but you can trade staples like flour for them. However, people are still price gouging and duping others with fake products. The solutions here are simple—a price comparison tool like the one Stubhub provides for ticket sales could give everyone a calibration on what exchanges are fair. A reputation system like the one on ebay could help stop scammers. If people have public reputations, then individuals can choose not to trade with someone who has a negative reputation and be extra careful with a new account with no history. These are established solutions, but it’s not clear who can build these tools for the Venezuelans, even though the need is desperate. It’s certainly not research—it’s too easy. To do something as a research project, we need something that we can raise grant funding for and publish about—we need to innovate. But solving this problem doesn’t necessarily need much innovation.

The second part of the problem is platform lock. Venezuelans are using the platform they are already on—Facebook. It would be hard to imagine bringing people to a custom platform, even if we had the time and resources to try to build one. And although you can make some small changes to platforms like Facebook with browser scripting, those solutions are limited and fragile.

Here’s another example. In 2012, Dimond did a study of the use of mobile and social computing by survivors of domestic violence. Her research concluded that there are some simple things that could really help people in this situation. For example, features developed as parental controls could be adapted to provide protection from harassment for adults. But we have the same problems again—the solutions are largely so simple as to not qualify as research, and they’d have to be implemented by mobile carriers. What is missing is societal—why can’t we find resources to do these simple things? A purely market-based model for software development falls short of meeting people’s needs.

These issues are going to multiply. As software reaches into more and more nooks and crannies of everyday life, we need an economic model that can deliver needed features that don’t make sense from a pure profit motivation. This will involve more activity by software nonprofits like Mozilla that design tools for the public good. It will further require better computer science education and extensible platforms so that people can develop solutions for themselves.

What if we all insisted on reasonable NDAs?

August 20, 2017 2 comments

Next week I am attending a mini-conference in which a big tech company (I’ll call it BTC) has invited a group of academics to advise them. Everyone attending was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). The NDA I was sent initially didn’t define what was confidential, and had no time limit.  So basically they’re asking everyone to keep secret who-knows-what forever. Does that make sense?

How can you protect confidential information if you don’t even know what is confidential? A fair NDA needs to spell it out. This is called a “marking requirement.” Any tangible materials containing proprietary information shared with you should be marked “confidential.” Ideally also, the agreement should say that if confidential information is disclosed orally, they will follow-up with a copy in tangible form marked confidential within a few weeks after the disclosure. That last part can be harder to get companies to agree to, because it’s a hassle.

Second, a fair NDA should have an end date. It’s not reasonable to ask you to assume a lifelong obligation, is it? They’re not going to tell me the formula for Coca-Cola—it’s stuff that changes rapidly. At the speed that things change in high tech, a three-year limit is fair. Five years at most.

I told my hosts at BTC that I’d please like some changes to the NDA, and they graciously complied. The back-and-forth process between their lawyers and my university’s lawyers took so long, I almost ended up not going to the event. They were reasonable, and the result is fair. But here’s my question: why doesn’t everyone always ask for more reasonable NDAs? If we all did, then they wouldn’t be sending out the unfair versions in the first place.

Companies keep asking people to sign ridiculous non-disclosure agreements, because folks sign them without objecting. If we all insist on reasonable NDAs, this will no longer be a problem.

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Is it OK to dox white supremacists?

August 14, 2017 6 comments

What do you all think about the ethics of doxing attendees at the white supremacist rally? Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. However, with the power of the crowd, the consequences are sometimes outpacing what a reasonable person would deem fair (example: puppy poo girl and Justine Sacco). And the consequences of the crowd making mistakes can be devastating to innocent people (like in the ‘find Boston Bombers‘ incident). So how do you evaluate the actions of the people doing the doxing in this case?

Categories: Uncategorized

Is there any point in talking to “them”?

August 5, 2017 5 comments

In response to my last post, Mike Travers wrote:

I wish I retained more of the liberal faith in the power of conversation, but after many years of trying to engage with a variety of right-wing types on the net, I really don’t. Face to face conversation sometimes has the power to change minds, but it’s a decreasing proportion of human interaction, which may be one of the roots of our current troubles.

I believe Mike has zeroed in on the most important issue in this conversation: is talking to “them” even worth it?  If you believe it is not, then I can see why you might sink to calling the other side names or punching them. If you believe that conversation might help, then of course you wouldn’t.

It’s fascinating to me how many people on both sides say they have no interest in talking to the other side. I had a conversation a week ago with a team of brilliant people who told me that there was absolutely no point in having any conversation with people who are unsure about LGBT rights, vaccination, or climate change. I admit that I have strong views on all those issues and have trouble imaging a sincere conversation with someone who disagrees with me. But I’m willing to try.

The other side feels the same way. The term “social justice warrior” (“SJW”) has emerged to describe folks they hate. Urban Dictionary defines SJW as “a pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way.” Members of the alt-right and others who use that term believe there’s no point in even trying to talk with an SJW–SJWs have made up their mind, and are not listening to others. It’s shocking to me how many people on both sides are not willing to consider the idea that the other side might have something worthwhile to say.

I still have, as Mike says, liberal faith in the power of conversation. I agree with Mike that conversation works better in person. But could we have conversations online that bridge the political divide? What if more people said, “I don’t think we agree on much, but let’s talk–and I’ll try to keep an open mind.” Even people with the most diametrically opposite views I believe can find some common values.

Could we create an internet site to facilitate those conversations, across the political divide? My students and I talk about this all the time. If we can come up with a good idea, we are going to try it. Would it be a structured discussion forum with rules of engagement and scaffolding for finding common values and agreed-upon facts? Could it be a kind of ‘game with a purpose,’ where finding common values scores points? Would anyone bother to try such a system? What would make it worth their while?

If you’re interested in these ideas, I recommend the US & Them Podcast. If you have ideas about software design for understanding across the political divide, leave me a comment–maybe we’ll really try it!

More on Common-Sense Symmetry: Please don’t punch Nazis!

August 4, 2017 1 comment

Thank you for all the great comments on my last blog post. My favorite comment so far said (paraphrasing): “That was a pretty wordy way to say ‘double standards.'”  (Wow–yes, thank you!)

Another way to say the same thing: Please don’t punch Nazis, or exclude them from health clubs when all they are doing is lifting weights. Yes, I think the alt-right’s Richard Spencer is a sad excuse for a human being. If I am ever unlucky enough to meet him in person, I will tell him so, in detail. But would I punch him? Of course not. Punching the Richard Spencers of the world means we sink to their level. It means Spencer and his followers can describe their opposition as violent and irrational–and they’ll be telling the truth.

What I find incomprehensible is that nice people who I respect have told me that in their view, the person who punched Spencer did the right thing. How is it even possible to think that? How is it possible to not see the negative implications of sinking to their level?  By sinking to their level, we fuel their anger, relinquish our claim to the high ground, and lessen the (already slim) chances of achieving greater mutual understanding.

The more complicated question of course is whether striving for mutual understanding is always a desirable goal. In most cases, I believe it is. But are there groups so heinous that they don’t deserve an attempt at conversation? I personally don’t think so, but I understand that it’s complicated. I will say, regardless, please don’t punch them.

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