Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

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+++ the burnt and the saved postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

What if, instead of the too-familiar, twee rituals tied to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Halloween, among other traditions for marking the onset of wintry blackness, we each had to construct our own tributes to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ — from the intersection of things seen in real life and well-grounded fears haunting our sleep? Pictures above and below: charred landscape, after a wildfire in August

Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?

How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as  fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.

The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call ACN.com here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:

Hello,

Thank you for being a regular user of [ ACN.com ].

Our records suggest that your [ ACN.com ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ACN.com ]. You can make copies of [ ACN.com ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme.

We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.

The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ACN.com ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone ACN.com‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.

When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’

So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.

‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’

Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.

Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media:  ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’  One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’

What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has graduated from unremitting surveillance to:

  • demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors
  • insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions
  • cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken

In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’ 

This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’  ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’  — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’ 

A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ —  an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.

In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.

In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.

Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.

moonrise over scorched earth postgutenberg@gmail.com

** No, not their actual unit of measurement.

Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).

A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind (republished 16.11.2017)

[ An unknown tamperer was responsible for the broken Google link to this, one of our most popular posts, first published on Valentine’s Day 2012 — for which we got a ‘Page not found’ message a few minutes ago. It is still topical and worth republishing. ]

‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat … [E]motionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs.’

Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,’

Michaeleen Doucleff,  The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2012

Digesting a grisly dissection of the bio-chemical effects of romance set to music in a financial newspaper told me that February the 14th can only become a more diabolical conspiracy between commercial and scientific calculation.

No sooner had I slogged through the neuroscientific perspective on l’amour than I found an email message from Hewlett-Packard offering me a 50 per cent discount on printer ink with the coupon code ‘HPLOVE20’. The promotion was not stingy with fake sentiment: ‘Our adoration for you is lasting – this offer is not.’

And there you have the reasons why post-gutenberg.com would rather dedicate today not to courtship or its consequences but to the perfect potential marriage of means and ends that we have in the World Wide Web — for redesigning the way companies make money from social networking.

The plan for this Alternative Valentine’s Day was inspired by reading Deborah Orr’s thoughtful anti-Facebook protest in The Guardian last week:

“While the US was extolling the virtues of neoliberal corporatism […] Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the world wide web, and gifting it to the planet, for people like Mark Zuckerberg to exploit.”

And to make sure no one had missed the significance of what she said, commenters on her piece underlined its essence:

Not sure how many will realise that what Deborah is saying amounts to this:

(i) Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a research scientist in Geneva, gave us all the World Wide Web for nothing

(ii) Facebook users are giving the world information about themselves for nothing

(iii) Mark Zuckerberg came along and used Tim’s and everyone else’s generosity to everyone else to make a pile for himself.

1 extremely remarkable member of the 1% indeed.

When will the average Facebook user catch on?

That users are beginning to grasp the dimensions of the Facebook heist – in plain sight and with the full cooperation of its victims – is clear from  newspaper articles elsewhere:

Facebook Users Ask, ‘Where’s Our Cut?

Nick Bilton

The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 11:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — By my calculation, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owes me about $50.

Without me, and the other 844,999,999 people poking, liking and sharing on the site, Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow”: bleak, desolate and really quite sad. (Or MySpace, if that is easier to imagine.) Facebook surely would never be valued at anything close to $100 billion, which it very well could be in its coming initial public offering.

So all this leaves me with a question: Where’s my cut? I helped build this thing, too. Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.

Some of Deborah Orr’s commenters – or at least one – thought the remedy for this injustice obvious:

[ lightly edited for repetition ]

[W]e need to start a movement to turn Facebook into a giant cooperative — in which the users make up the rules, and personal information is not sold to anyone.

[…]

Alternatively, …I have heard that a new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and that he is clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich — as Deborah Orr says — and that this is deeply wrong, …and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods that were hard to find anywhere else. Sometimes, those hairy hippies operated cafés where you could eat earnest, do-gooder sandwiches fringed with medicinal bean sprouts and tasting like specially aged damp sawdust.

Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise.  The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. And, as the same commenter said.

To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work on this very site.

Consider, please:

‘the scheme of social organisation which places the means of production of wealth and the distribution of that wealth into the hands of the community.’

That is a dictionary definition (Chambers) of what became a dirty word for many of us, because the idea was so corrupted in its execution. Yes, I mean, socialism.

But that was before this means of communicating and transparent  decision-making was invented.

A hybrid between socialism and capitalism is what we need as a transitional scheme, and you can download a no-holds-barred exchange on that subject here (a free download: see the comments and response to them at the end, if in a hurry): The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1532173

Well alright, I’ll admit that those comments closely echo sentiments expressed on this blog. They might even have been made by the same tiresome blogger.

Cooperatives sound embarrassingly utopian. But they are the finest examples of socialism in action that we have. An earlier entry in this spot quoted an authority on the subject saying that in the U.S., capitalism’s Mecca, 13 million American already work for these organisations.

Some people react to philosophical nudges in that direction with a silence in which you can almost hear them thinking, ‘But who are you to propose evolutionary possibilities for business?

Actually, nobody. But Albert Einstein anticipated this little difficulty. In a 1949 essay, ‘Why Socialism?’,  he reached far back into history to analyse people’s reluctance to break out of well-established patterns, noting:

The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But, as he said in his conclusion,

[W]e should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Where is it engraved in stone that Facebook has to be owned by a wealthy 1 per cent enriched by the 99 per cent sharing their private information as unquestioningly as feudal serfs?