The web =/= the mob?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

Network diagram of macaque brain connectivitySeeing as how I ended up with a whole bunch of related links, I thought they might as well all fit in one post. So, your overarching thematic question is: the power of the web and social media is pretty much a given, but does it empower us in ways that are beneficial or detrimental?* [image by arenamontanus]

For a start, Bruce Sterling points to what must be the third story I’ve seen in the last year about what happens when jurors are accustomed to social media and ubiquitous information access. In a nutshell, it’s almost impossible to keep people in an informational vacuum without locking them up in a Faraday cage, or to keep them from Tweeting about a case they’re hearing… so what happens to the existing legal model of the unprejudiced jury of your peers? Pandora’s box is well and truly open; how can we develop fair trials in the information age? Expert systems instead of juries? Crowdsourced multiplex juries? Or a trial process that not only accepts but embraces its position at the centre of a media ecology based on novelty and shock?

Over in Egypt, however, the political counterculture is just starting to flex the lithe and slippery new limbs that the internet has provided it, thanks to the incumbent government’s possibly self-defeating decision to leave the internet predominantly uncensored in the hope of encouraging international trade and domestic development. Decentralised networks like Twitter are undermining the official media controls and embargoes that are the hallmark and lynch-pin of the despot… with the end result that the Egyptian government is falling back on the time-honoured (if counterproductive) methods of intimidating and threatening the loudest dissenting voices.

Meanwhile, televangelist megapastor Rick Warren caves in to public opinion and writes publically to Ugandan ministers to condemn their violent persecution of homosexuality. While it’s impossible to truly know the mind of another, I think I can safely assume that Warren would have lost no sleep over the Ugandan lynch-mobs; the bad publicity focussed on himself as a result of staying quiet, however, was simply unacceptable. A small victory for public opinion, perhaps.

But that knife cuts both ways. Remember me linking to an interview with Indian science fiction author Ashok Banker, in which he took the Western publishing industry to task for institutionalised racism, accompanied by a chorus of voices denying that any such racism existed? Well, that interview has been deleted from the World SF Blog at Banker’s request, because he and his family have been receiving death threats in response to it, through assorted social media channels. A sad story, and one that pretty much proves his initial point… as well as demonstrating that the “pure” democracy of the web can enable the primacy of hatred just as easily as justice (your postcard from Switzerland has just arrived). It all depends on which group cares enough to do the most hard work with that media lever.

And speaking of inequalities, here’s a post from a well-known figure in the copywriting blogosphere, wherein he reveals that he’s actually a she. And no, it’s not even some dramatic story of gender confusion and coming out: it’s an inside account of the glass ceiling that still exists in the Western world for women who dare to make their own way in a male domain. Long story short: after a long period of crap work, poor pay and demanding clients, she started using a male pen-name and found that everything improved drastically.

In some ways, there’s a small victory for the web here: intertube anonymity overcomes the gender boundary, saves family from poverty! But the story overall is a sad one, highlighting an institutionalised misogyny that we still perpetrate at a subconscious cultural level, even on the supposedly egalitarian plains of the internet. Worth bearing in mind next time the subject of female authors submitting stories using their initials rather than their first names comes up, and folk start saying that they’re doing themselves a disservice by doing so, eh?

[ * Obviously the answer is “both”, but I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by thinking about how these things happen. We’ve asked whether the web is an inherently democratising force here before, and the stories above seem to suggest that social media empowers the most vocal and/or powerful groups that possess the savvy and access to use them effectively. In Egypt, that appears to be the good guys (at least from my perspective); unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere. ]


The Anonymous Hunters: corporate critics and whistleblowers beware

Paul Raven @ 06-11-2009

Have you ever bad-mouthed a big company in an internet comments thread? If so, the Wragge and Co. law firm of Birmingham, UK may be hot on your tail (provided the comment is vitriolic enough to provoke the company to spend money, one assumes) – they’ve just announced a new legal “task force” for tracking down the identities of nefarious anonymous commenters [via TechDirt].

The Cyber Tracing team at Wragge & Co was set up to deal with what the law firm said was a rising problem with people making anonymous statements that defamed companies, and people sharing confidential information online.

And Wragge boasted the new team would ensure there was


On the internet, *everyone* knows you’re a dog

Paul Raven @ 07-05-2009

social network analysisWell, maybe not everyone – but some clever types from the University of Austin have determined that even when your social networking data is divorced from your identity, it’s a relatively easy job to do some analysis and fit the names to the profiles.

In tests involving the photo-sharing site Flickr and the microblogging service Twitter, the Texas researchers were able to identify a third of the users with accounts on both sites simply by searching for recognizable patterns in anonymized network data. Both Twitter and Flickr display user information publicly, so the researchers anonymized much of the data in order to test their algorithms.

The researchers wanted to see if they could extract sensitive information about individuals using just the connections between users, even if almost all of the names, addresses, and other forms of personally identifying information had been removed. They found that they could, provided they could compare these patterns with those from another social-network graph where some user information was accessible.

The prime appeal of that data is, of course, the ability to use it for targeting advertising over the most desirable demographics – which, for many people, is objectionable in and of itself. More worrying is the potential for unearthing data that –  under a restrictive regime, for example – could be used to persecute or criminalise:

For example, the algorithm could theoretically employ the names of a user’s favorite bands and concert-going friends to decode sensitive details such as sexual orientation from supposedly anonymized data. Acquisti believes that the result paints a bleak picture for the future of online privacy. “There is no such thing as complete anonymity,” he says. “It’s impossible.”

Leaving the risks aside for the moment, though, this research has produced some rather fascinating insights into the nature of social networks and human behaviour as a unique identifier:

“The structure of the network around you is so rich, and there are so many different possibilities, that even though you have millions of people participating in the network, we all end up with different networks around us,” says Shmatikov. “Once you deal with sufficiently sophisticated human behavior, whether you’re talking about purchases people make or movies they view or – in this case – friends they make and how they behave socially, people tend to be fairly unique. Every person does a few quirky, individual things which end up being strongly identifying.

I wonder if the open-source argument about security would apply here? Open software advocates say that having the source code out in the open means that everyone can work on making a program more secure and efficient, rather than just the developers and the crackers; should these analysis methods be made public so we can keep up in the arms race with the snoops and marketeers? [image by luc legay]

What’s almost certain, though, is what any good security expert will have been saying all along – if you’re even slightly worried about something about you becoming public knowledge, assuming you can put it somewhere on the web and keep it private is an act of uninformed delusion. If you want to keep your privacy, it’s down to you to do it.


Secret Motel Art

Tom Marcinko @ 20-06-2008

secretmotelart1Next time you check into a motel, look under the drawers and tables.  Online photo-comic artist Chris Yates has been waging war on uniformity and alienation in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah.   And those are just the ones we know about.
[Utah, It May Be Good for You]


Richard Morgan on the future of the internet

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2008

world-wide-web-internet Richard Morgan, author of a number of excellent cyber-noir sf thrillers (the most recent being the excellent Black Man, or Thirteen as it was titled in the US) was asked by Index On Censorship Magazine to write an essay about the future of the internet, which is now available on his website. [Image by Meyshanworld]

If you’re familiar with Morgan’s books, you’ll know not to expect rose-tinted panglossian speculation from him. I’ll freely admit that I get carried away with techno-utopian visions from time to time, and it’s good to have writers with Morgan’s incisive intelligence to bring me down to earth:

“The future of the internet, then, is not going to be too much of a shock for anyone who knows much about human nature and whose eyes are open. In fact, regardless of the technical innovations that we may or may not see in the next few decades, virtual reality looks as if it’s going to conform pretty ordinarily to the existing human tendencies we so know and love.”

Go read! [Props to Ariel for the tip.]


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