Archives For internet

voodoo doll

In another edition of people-can-be-awful news following last week’s post about why it’s indeed best not to feed trolls, it’s time to talk about online harassment and what to do about it. It seems that some 72 social activist groups are asking the Department of Education to police what they see as harassing and hate speech on a geo-fenced messaging app, arguing that because said geo-fence includes college campuses, it’s the colleges’ job to deal with it. Well, I suppose that it must be the start of windmill tilting season somewhere and now a government agency will have to do something to appease activists with good intentions in whose minds computers are magic that with the right lines of code can make racists, sexists, and stalkers go away. Except when all of them simply reappear on another social media platform and keep being terrible people since the only thing censoring them changes is the venue on which they’ll spew their hatred or harass their victims. Of course this is to be expected because the internet is built to work like that.

Now look, I completely understand how unpleasant it is to have terrible things said about you or done to you on the web and how it affects you in real life. As a techie who lives on the web, I’ve had these sorts of things happen to me firsthand. However, the same part of me that knows full well that the internet is in fact serious business, contrary to the old joke, also understands that a genuine attempt to police it is doomed to failure. Since the communication protocols used by all software using the internet are built to be extremely dynamic and robust, there’s always a way to circumvent censorship, confuse tracking, and defeat blacklists. This is what happens when a group of scientists build a network to share classified information. Like it or not, as long as there is electricity and an internet connection, people will get online, and some of these people will be terrible. For all the great things the internet brought us, it also gave us a really good look at how many people are mediocre and hateful, in stark contrast to most techo-utopian dreams.

So keeping in mind that some denizens of the web will always be awful human beings who give exactly zero shits about anyone else or what effect their invective has on others, and that there will never be a social media platform free of them no matter how hard we try, what should their targets do about it? Well, certainly not ask a government agency to step in. With social media’s reach and influence as powerful as it is today, and the fact that it’s free to use, we’ve gotten lost in dreamy manifestos of access to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and yes, the dreaded Yik Yak, being fundamental human rights to speak truth to power and find a supporting community. But allowing free and unlimited use of social media is not some sort of internet mandate. It’s ran by private companies, many of them not very profitable, hoping to create an ecosystem in which a few ads or add-on services will make them some money by being middlemen in your everyday interactions with your meatspace and internet friends. If we stop using these services when the users with which we’re dealing through them are being horrible us, we do real damage.

But wait a minute, isn’t not using the social media platform on which you’ve been hit with waves and waves of hate speech, harassment, and libel, just letting the trolls win? In a way, maybe. At the same time though, their victory will leave them simply talking to other trolls with whom pretty much no one wants to deal, including the company that runs the platform. If Yik Yak develops a reputation as the social app where you go to get abused, who will want to use it? And if no one wants to use it, what reason is there for the company to waste millions giving racist, misogynist, and bigoted trolls their own little social network? Consider the case of Chatroulette. Started with the intent of giving random internet users a face with a screen name and connecting them with people they’d never otherwise meet, the sheer amount of male nudity almost destroyed it. Way too many users had negative experiences and never logged on again, associating it with crude, gratuitous nudity, so much so that it’s still shorthand for being surprised by an unwelcome erect penis on cam. Even after installing filters and controls banning tens of thousands of users every day, it’s still not the site it used to be, or that its creator actually envisioned it becoming.

With that in mind, why try to compel politicians and bureaucrats to unmask and prosecute users for saying offensive things on the web, many of which will no doubt be found to be protected by their freedom of speech rights? That’s right, remember that free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say things you personally approve of, or find tolerable. Considering that hate speech is legal, having slurs or rumors about you in your feed is very unlikely to be a criminal offense. You can be far more effective by doing nothing and letting the trolls fester, their favorite social platform to abuse others become their own personal hell where other trolls, out of targets, turn on them to get their kicks. Sure, many trolls just do it for the lulz with few hard feelings towards you. Until it’s them being doxxed, or flooded with unwanted pizzas, or swatted, or seeing their nudes on a site for other trolls’ ridicule. No matter how hard you try, they won’t be any less awful to you, so let them be awful to each other until they kill the community that allows them to flourish and the company that created and maintained it, and allow their innate awfulness be their undoing.

fable troll

Every internet community has them and many have been killed by them. They crave two things most of all: attention and a platform to broadcast whatever comes to mind, and every time they appear, you can safely bet that someone will admonish users engaging with them not to feed a troll as per the common axiom. But what if, just to propose something crazy here, maybe there are reasons to talk to them, downvote them, and otherwise show your displeasure because an appropriate amount of push back will finally solidify the message that they’re not wanted? They could either leave or give up on their trollish ways. Either way, it would be an improvement. So, following this hypothesis, a small group at a Bay Area college collected 42 million comments on huge gaming, political, and news sites with a grand total of 114 million votes spanning as many as 1.8 million unique users, to figure out once and for all if you can downvote trolls into oblivion or force them to productively contribute. Unfortunately, the answer is a pretty definitive no.

After creating an artificial neural network to gauge whether comments deserved an upvote or a downvote after using the actual discussion threads as a training set, the researchers decided to follow users’ comment histories to see how feedback from others affected them over time. They found that users who were ignored simply stopped participating, which seems quite logical. It’s simply a waste of time and effort to shout into the digital aether with no feedback. But when the computer followed the trolls, the data showed that even withering negativity had pretty much no effect on what they posted or how much. Their comments didn’t change and they did not seem to care at all about the community’s opinions of them. If they wanted to antagonize people, they kept right on doing it. We could say that not every person who provoked a flood of negativity in response is a troll, true. Some of the political sites used in the sample are extremely partisan so any deviation from the party line can provoke a dog pile. But by the same token, while not every maligned comment is trollish, most trollish comments are maligned, so the idea still holds.

With this in mind, how do we police trolls? Not feeding them does seem to be the best strategy, but considering how many of us suffer from SIWOTI syndrome — and yes, I’m not an exception to this by any stretch of the imagination since half this blog is a manifestation of it — and will not let trollish things go, it’s not always feasible. This means that shadow banning is actually by far the most effective technique to deal with problematic users. Because they won’t know they’re in their own little sandbox invisible to everyone else, their attempts to garner attention are always ignored so they get bored and leave. Of course this method isn’t foolproof, but a well designed and ran community will quickly channel even repeat offenders into the shadow banned abyss to be alone with their meanderings. In short, according to science, the best thing we can do to put a stop to trolling is to aggressively ignore them, as paradoxical as that sounds at first blush.

grumpy cat

Some days I read stories about machine learning being deployed to fight crime, exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again, or supercomputers modeling new spacecraft, and feel very lucky to be in my current profession. Computers changed the world, and the discipline behind making these computers work is based around the egalitarian concept of tinkering. You need electricity and a little bit of money to get started, true, but the path from wanting to build something useful to doing it has never been more straightforward or shorter. Anyone with enough dedication can make something from scratch, even without formal training, though it’s highly recommended for those who want to become professionals. And then, other days I read about things like Peeple, the app that lets you review other humans, currently valued at $7.6 million, and groan that what people like me do is both helping the world while slowly ruining it by letting awful ideas like this spawn into existence with little effort. Because there’s no way this can possibly end well…

Just consider that out of a hundred people who read something online, just one might respond, or somehow interact with the content. People are not going to go through the effort of creating usernames, passwords, and e-mail or social media verification unless they are really motivated to do so. And when are people most motivated? When they’re upset or are expecting a reward in return for their trouble. Consider that when a business is in the news for ugly misdeeds, it’s pretty much a given that the first thing to happen to them will be angry torrents of one-star Yelp reviews which the admins then have to clean up. It’s not going to be any different with people, and whereas businesses are just legal entities that can be re-branded or ran by someone new which would give them the benefit of the doubt, a person is a person, and reviews about him or her will be around for years, no matter whether this person turned a new leaf, or the reviews for past bad behavior are actually legitimate complaints, a misunderstanding, or just malicious, and it’s likely that negativity will quickly trump whatever positive feedback the apps encourage.

As an example, take last year’s flash in the smartphone app pan Lulu, which allowed women to rate men as sexual partners. Negative reviews vastly outnumbered the positive ones, and while the app’s goal may have been helping women to avoid selfish partners and bad dates, it turned into a place for women to complain about men they didn’t like. I’m sure that the same exact app made for men to rate women would have the same results. For Peeple to really be any different would require human beings to fundamentally change how they interact with each other. And to add to the unpleasantness of dealing with judgmental, demanding, and hypersensitive people in the real world, all their unfiltered, nasty remarks now have a megaphone and are searchable by future romantic partners, landlords, and employers who have only these strangers’ opinions as their introduction to you. Have the creators of Peeple or Lulu thought whether it would be better for all of us if someone could type in a name and in an instant see our sexual history, a laundry list of opinions and complaints about us by friends and strangers alike on top of everything that already was made public about our lives through social media, or the potential for abuse?

We live at a time when revenge porn and social media turned leaked sex tapes and nudes into quaint mishaps and you have to develop a strategy to deal with your most intimate details in an enormous data dumpof millions of others’ most intimate details and fantasies. Isn’t that a sign that we’ve taken this social media thing far enough? When banks are mulling the idea of giving you loans based on your friends’ social media profiles, and employers are poking around your tweets and Instagram pictures, do you need to give malicious hackers or exploitative friends an additional way to take advantage of you? Even worse, just think about the fact that a third of all reviews on the web are likely to be fake and imagine a future where you have to buy a positive review bundle to offset nastiness said about you on Peeple, or make up a small horde of really, really satisfied and vocal sexual partners on a Lulu follow-up, which would be inevitable when a people rating app catches on. The bottom line is that apps that let you rate people like products are a textbook example of why being able to do something doesn’t mean you should, without a second thought about the potential consequences of what you’re unleashing on the world.

roaring hulk

Since the dawn of the web, there have been shock jocks and people on a quest to see who can post the most extreme content without crossing the line into depraved criminality. Then, with an enormous wave of social media companies, and our ever-expanding access to broadband and fast mobile networks, the distance between saying and doing something very regrettable, and a massive backlash that can go global, has never been shorter. An ill-thought out tweet could be devastating to one’s life and career, and we’re still all getting used to this scary reality, making a lot of mistakes along the way. Every bad decision, questionable blog post, and tone-deaf article zooms around the world within minutes to one of the online media’s most reliable sources of all those sweet, juicy, ad price hiking page views: the outraged response. Just consider last year’s meteoric rise of the outrage click, with a fresh, new scandal for each and every day, and should we consider non-celebrities and the world outside current events, many more beyond that.

This year, the outrage machine isn’t slowing down one bit. If anything, it’s picked up steam as a vast array of popular blogs and news sites are ready to pounce on every Twitter war and every botched interview and social media post. But as the rage keeps on coming, there’s a slow, sure trickle of think pieces asking if we’re ever going to get tired of it and if it’s the result of opening a digital Pandora’s Box. After all, once you give people a diet of nothing but outrage, they should, in theory, become largely immune to it, right? We have the same issue when it comes to caring and empathizing with something that leaves a large number of victims in its wake, a well known and thoroughly studied phenomenon known as the scope-severity paradox. It comes down to a limit on how many things we can process at once and how much emotion we can invest in each and every case brought to our attention. Our empathetic and and cognitive abilities start fading quickly when we’re overwhelmed, so logically, someday, we’ll get completely outraged out.

In fact, it would really be interesting to see and compare the traffic from popular outrage articles and social media posts over the last few years to chart the duration and size of each fury spike. There are publicly available tools for researchers regarding Twitter and Facebook activity, but a glimpse at that data alone wouldn’t tell the full story. We’d need closely kept traffic data from all the major media sources with more than a million views a day, including comment counts, likes, shares, and links, as well as additional controls for small cliques in debates inflating comments, regular outrageaholics, and whether the pieces are one-offs, or the entire outlet traffics in solely outrage and scandal. Only then will we actually have a clue as to whether the internet will in fact get sick of the steady drumbeat of the outrage machine. At the same time, I think we can make several predictions as to what we’re likely to find because while the speed and medium are new to us, how we collect and sometimes manufacture outrage for the public is rather old hat.

First off, it’s unlikely that internet outrage will ever be dethroned as a key in building traffic since we sure love to form angry mobs and it’s simply too easy to throw some red meat to such mobs just waiting to form. Likewise, it should be noted that among this outrage, there are instances of actual, brutal, noteworthy injustice that must be swiftly, vocally, and publicly addressed to make things right again. As bizarre as it sounds, sometimes an angry mob can actually do some good and contribute to fixing a problem. If anything, we do want the Outrage Machine around for the instances where we can use its power for good rather than evil, chaos, and PC wars. Secondly, people are going to participate in whipping up media outrage and escalating it it because they’ll want to be part of an angry mob, and nowadays, they don’t even have to physically grab nearby torches and pitchforks. Tweets and Facebook posts will more than suffice. With this barrier to a virtual riot as low as a click, many will find it hard to resist from basking in moral superiority.

Finally, let’s just admit that there are writers whose very bread and butter now relies on getting involved in some sort of scandal, so their outrage will get posted and promoted day in, day out, hoping that one or two of their pieces of outrage clickbait go viral and get them the page views, attention, and vitriolic feedback they need to keep their careers going. If online outrage starts to die down as a genre, it’s going to be a very slow death with periodic spasms that make it seem as if it had risen from death once again. It’s too easy to generate it, too easy to escalate it, way too easy to let it consume you, and it feeds the urge of many to seeing others in a situation that gives them a chance to gloat and compare themselves favorably to the disgraced schmucks. At the same time, there is a very real danger that constant outrage will ruin our connection to how our much less dramatic world really works, and lose incidents where public outrage is almost a required civic duty among the trivial and inconsequential. And that would be sad indeed.

running from monster

Much like the dudebro after getting turned down by a woman at a party immediately strides to a new target until he finally finds someone willing to entertain him, and should he strike out every time, he’ll start blaming women’s studies classes for his failures, the online ad industry has tried railing against ad blockers which have taken click-through rates to abysmal new lows. But there is a good reason why they’ve become so popular. For one, much like a prototypical ladies’ man playing the numbers game, online advertisers have over-saturated sites so much so, that many web surfers find sites loading much slower and harder to navigate. Stuffing ads into every pixel, modal, and lined up for accidental clicks have made the web a worse place and actually trained web surfers to immediately avoid them. But online ads have become an annoying waste of not just time and bandwidth, they’ve mutated into a way for hackers to infest your computers.

An in-depth story from the UK tech tabloid explains something that security experts have seen a lot in recent years, using interactive ads to load malware onto computers. The idea is usually to load an object that can run a program into your browser’s sandbox, then use an exploit to break out into the system itself, establish a connection to a command and control server, and load the malicious files. And because so many interactive ads are so poorly programmed and bloated in the first place, and the industry is desperate for volume to make up for the microscopic margins, there are no security or quality audits of what gets displayed to you when you visit a page. With no such audit system in sight, your best bet to avoid being infected is to download and enable a decent ad blocker. Which just goes to show that online advertising has taken abject failures to a whole new level when its services aren’t simply ignored, but have to be actively avoided…

[ illustration by Vitaly Alexius ]


Now, is it just me or are you not really a celebrity until you either have a naked photo spread of yourself in a random glossy magazine, or your very own sex tape? It’s almost as if the gossips who decide who’s who on national television won’t pay attention to you unless there’s either an attention-pleading nudie spread or a threat of a sex tape looming over your head. But alas, the heady days of the celebrity sex tape might be coming to an end, according to Amanda Hess, a conclusion she bases on the ever less enthusiastic reaction of the public to the latest scandals such as The Fappening and Hulk Hogan’s recorded foray into swinging. As Hess sees it, we’ve entered sex tape and celebrity nudity fatigue because there have simply been too many tapes, pictures, and rumors, and the trend is so widespread, very likeable entertainers are affected by hackers in search of sleaze. Instead of laughing at the lax security and overconfidence of C-list actors and actresses, and the desperate pleas for attention from D-list has-beens, we are now empathizing with the invasions of privacy done to make a scuzzy buck off the shock value.

While this may all be true, I think there’s a very important piece of the puzzle Hess is missing in this regard and it has to do with the ubiquitous, internet-connected technology always within an arm’s reach. Back in the days of Tommy Lee and Pamela, you had to set up a camera, make a tape, have that tape duplicated, use fairly convoluted equipment to digitize it, upload it to a web server which you had to configure correctly to accept the format in which you digitized it, spread the word on countless message boards, manually submit it to a search engine, and finally, over the course of a few months actually get widespread notice of the sex tape. Just writing that out would be enough to make you winded, but also shows why celebrities thought they would be in the clear if they just hid their tapes well enough. But today, the camera is on your phone, video gets recorded in a standard format for which everyone has players, and with one-click uploads, you can go from casual sex to amateur porn stardom in a matter of minutes. And many do.

Having constant access to technology has also taken a great deal of flirting and hook ups to the web where you can find anyone from a soul mate, to quick, no-strings-attached fun. And much like the old joke about male masturbation, there are two types of people who use technology to help them flirt, those who send nudes, and those who lie about it. In fact, spies intercepting web cam and IM traffic on popular messaging platforms between regular people in the UK were just straight up shocked at how much nudity they saw. If the 11% number doesn’t seem that high to you, keep in mind that said spies were actually trying to do some targeted snooping, so most of the nudity they saw was after attempts to filter it out. We get naked for the camera so often, we overwhelm top notch government data centers with high tech filtering mechanisms to the point where “well, I tried searching for it and all this porn came up” is a real problem for spies on top secret versions of the internet built specifically to exclude civilian distractions and access.

It’s even a widespread problem for kids just entering puberty. Teens with low self-esteem and a hunger for approval and cred send naked pictures to each other all the time. Adults who need a confidence boost about their bodies can easily solicit strangers’ opinions in anonymous forums, even though they probably shouldn’t. And even when we take pains to make our adult pictures, videos, and chats private, all it takes is one small security hole or a careless moment, and bam, some hacker can get into out accounts and either harvest what we already have, or install very nasty malware to capture some of our sexual moments. Of course we could run with the notion that we shouldn’t share anything we don’t expect to be public and if there are naked pictures of us on the web, we deserve it. But this is a downright sociopathic line of reasoning, on par with a defense of a burglar who only stole your stuff because you didn’t have stronger locks while also lacking the good sense to only buy things you were prepared to lose in a robbery. If you tried to protect your assets and failed, telling you to protect them better, or not have them, is asinine.

So what does this all have to do with the decline of the celebrity sex tape/leaked pic genre? We went from giddy curiosity, to boredom as such tapes were being released for publicity and a bit of cash, to a nasty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we’ve now taken enough nudes or done enough adult things on the web to realize that we might be next. There are extortionists whose goal it is to trick you into getting sexual with them and then blackmail you. There’s the revenge porn business, perhaps the sleaziest scam of all time. When we know that celebrity nudity was really hacked rather than made in an attempt for another 15 minutes of fame, and we can also be compromised in much the same way, as two non-famous victims of The Fappening were, it becomes a lot less fun to watch these videos or pics. Rather than guilty pleasures brought to us by paparazzi in that TMZ celebs-behaving-badly school of tabloid gossiping, they very much hit home like the gross invasions of privacy they are. And not having enough means of stopping a nasty hack that will embarrass us, we cringe in reply, knowing we can suffer the same fate…

facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]

not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.