If I were a bright-eyed huckster with a sharp suit and few morals (or should that be fewer?), online reputation management would be one of the business models I’d be thinking about putting into action. For as they say in Yorkshire, “where there’s muck, there’s brass”… quite a lot of brass, in fact, if this NYT piece is to be believed:
Reputation.com advertises an annual membership fee of $99, but Mr. Fertik said that costs could easily reach $10,000 for a prominent person who wanted to make a scandal harder to discover through Internet searches. (He said Mr. Weiner was probably out of luck: “It would take a long time and more money than he has.”)
For the detective work, the costs escalate quickly. Michael J. Hershman, president of the Fairfax Group, a risk and reputation management firm, said burying negative information could cost $500 to $1,000, but persuading search engines to expunge incorrect information could cost several thousand dollars more. Getting that information removed from aggregating Web sites like Intellius or PeopleFinder can add another couple of thousand dollars.
Costs can spike into five figures when a firm is asked to find the people responsible for the defamatory blog post or Twitter message. “If you’re going to hire a firm like ours to find that person, it’s hit or miss,” Mr. Hershman said. “We can’t guarantee success. It’s not as easy as going to the search engines.”
There’s a pretty obvious parallel here with the UK-centric phenomenon of super- and hyper-injunctions; the traditional privacy of the rich and privileged is becoming harder and more difficult to maintain in the face of network culture. (This is, if I understand it correctly, the intended meaning of the old saw about “information wanting to be free”, rather than as a dubious ideological justification for content piracy.)
It remains to be seen whether power and money will win the battle in the long run; it probably won’t surprise regular readers to know that I rather hope it doesn’t, because that would mean the rich and powerful would be obliged to think about the potential fallout from their indiscretions before committing them, or face the consequences like everyone else.
The flipside is that life-damaging falsehoods can proliferate with equal ease, deliberately or accidentally, and that corrections to erroneous reports rarely have the same high profile or link-back rate as the initial reports themselves. That said, the nature of network culture suggests that concerted efforts to publicise truth and retractions are likely to be just as effective as deliberate smears or falsehoods propagated with the same degree of effort. As more and more raw data and evidence becomes part of the online ecosystem, it should in theory be possible to defend the truth more effectively as time goes by… but that discounts the regrettable realities of confirmation bias. As so many sensitive topics demonstrate – from global-level biggies like climate science, all the way down to gender representation disparities in science fiction publishing – no amount of data will convince those who simply don’t want to be convinced.
At this point in my thought-train, it’s time to bring in that small yet hardy perennial of geek-futurist topics, the reputation currency. These are still in their infancy, and as such are very open to gaming and logrolling; Amazon review ratings, for instance, vary wildly in their utility from product to product, though the eBay system is a little more robust and trustworthy, provided one does one’s due diligence. But that’s the key, I suspect; in the same way that I think we have to take responsibility for regulating the behaviour of corporations by thinking carefully about where we spend our money and/or attention-time, I think it’s also down to us to make sure we only trust systems that are trustworthy.
Easier said than done, of course, as it would require a pretty fundamental shift in attitudes toward who is responsible for protecting us from the more miscreant members of the species. But there’s another topical example that provides a potential model for a currency of trustworthiness, and that’s BitCoin. Only a trust currency would actually have to be a sort of mirror image of BitCoin, in that it would have to be completely transparent at the transaction level, with every exchange documented and verified by the cloud of peers. (Whether such a system could ever scale to a global or even national level is way beyond my limited grokking of cryptotech to grasp; it’s a subject I really need to dig into properly at my soonest opportunity.)
In the short- to medium-term, however, I think we can expect to see reputation management become an increasingly expensive and cut-throat theatre of business, alongside a broad swathe of attempts to reinstate the privilege of privacy using the statute books. With any luck, though, the continual exposure of politicians and celebrities as having the same suite of flaws and stupidities as the rest of us might eventually encourage us to look past the headlines and start asking the questions that really matter… namely what these people do when they’re actually at work on our dime.
I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that needs to get done over the next few days, so blogging here will perforce be of the drive-by link-drop variety for a few days or so. Today’s nugget of interest is BitCoin, a peer-to-peer electronic currency which, according to the folk behind the LAUNCH Conference at least, is “the most dangerous project [they’ve] ever seen”. Why so? Well…
According to companies like SoFi, Bitcoins are virtual coins in the form of a file that is stored on your device. These coins can be sent to and from users three ways:
1. Direct with peer-to-peer software downloaded at bitcoin.org
2. Via an escrow service like ClearCoin
3. Via a bitcoin currency exchange from Amazon Aktien kaufen
Each owner transfers the coin to the next by digitally signing a hash of the previous transaction and the public key of the next owner and adding these to the end of the coin. A payee can verify the signatures to verify the chain of ownership.
The benefits of a currency like this:
a) Your coins can’t be frozen (like a Paypal account can be)
b) Your coins can’t be tracked
c) Your coins can’t be taxed
d) Transaction costs are extremely low (sorry credit card companies)
It’s a “technotarian”political statement, apparently… not to mention a grenade in the nation-state punchbowl. Here’s a cuddly and very contemporary-looking promo video:
Given the global discontent with banking and finance right now, Bitcoin UP Seriös estimates BitCoins could look very attractive to a lot of people. Unsurprisingly, no “normal” financial system will let you buy them, and as the LAUNCH folks point out, legislation against them is inevitable. But would legislation be enough to stop them if enough people started bartering real-world goods and services for them? [Tip o’ the hat to Adam Rothstein]
Futurismic alumnus and all-round good chap Tobias Buckell has probably the most moderate and well-considered post on piracy I’ve yet seen from a mid-list author; go read it.
And as a reminder that squelching peer-to-peer protocols on the internet – even if it’s possible – will not defeat the economic problems inherent to infinitely duplicatable digital goods, here’s a DIY guide to building a portable wi-fi-powered peer-to-peer server into a lunchbox [via Hack A Day]. Think of it as a sneakernet on steroids; how you gonna hit that with DMCA takedowns?
You can try to fix the world, or you can try to fix your business model. Remember, King Canute got nothing but wet feet for his troubles*.
[ * Yes, Canute was actually trying to make a point about his lack of kingly omnipotence; a doubled layer of irony for you, there. ]
… the Internet was never truly free, bottom-up, decentralized, or chaotic. Yes, it may have been designed with many nodes and redundancies for it to withstand a nuclear attack, but it has always been absolutely controlled by central authorities. From its Domain Name Servers to its IP addresses, the Internet depends on highly centralized mechanisms to send our packets from one place to another.
The ease with which a Senator can make a phone call to have a website such as Wikileaks yanked from the net mirrors the ease with which an entire top-level domain, like say .ir, can be excised. And no, even if some smart people jot down the numeric ip addresses of the websites they want to see before the names are yanked, offending addresses can still be blocked by any number of cooperating government and corporate trunks, relays, and ISPs. That’s why ministers in China finally concluded (in cables released by Wikileaks, no less) that the Internet was “no threat.”
I’m not trying to be a downer here, or knock the possibilities for networking. I just want to smash the fiction that the Internet is some sort of uncontrollable, decentralized free-for-all, so that we can get on with the business of creating something else that is.
That “something else” is basically a peer-to-peer network similar to the existing internet, but one that is completely unreliant on corporate/gubernatorial/non-commons infrastructure like optical fibre. Rushkoff is honest enough to admit he doesn’t have the answers, but he’s surely asking the right questions:
Shall we use telephony, ham radio, or some other part of the spectrum? Do we organize overlapping meshes of WiMax? Do we ask George Soros for some money? MacArthur Foundation? Do we even need or want them or money at all? How might the funding of our network by a central bank issued currency, or a private foundation, or a public university, bias the very architecture we are trying to build? Who gets the ability to govern or limit what may spread over our network, if anyone? Should there be ways for us to transact?
To make the sorts of choices that might actually yield our next and truly decentralized network, we must take a good look at the highly centralized real world in which we live – as well as how it got that way. Only by understanding its principles, reckoning with the forces at play, and accepting the battles we have already lost, might we begin to forge ahead to create new forms that exist beyond any authority’s ability to grant them protection.
I’m no network engineer, but I’m pretty sure that an ad-hoc and rhizomatic peer-to-peer network based on some cableless connection like wi-fi is possible, at least in theory. Anyone in the audience able to tell me why I’m wrong? Or, better still, how we can build it?