Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon

How web developers choose to solve difficult technical problems has huge implications for free speech and democracy

There’s a new social nework on the block: Mastodon.

Or rather, it’s a social media technology. When we funnel all our conversations through the servers of a big company like Facebook or Twitter, we grant them enormous power. They control the extent of our privacy and of our free speech, and that power can be abused in ways that are both legal and not. The companies can sell our data to third parties (a process made much easier by the US Congress last week); they can reveal our data to the security agencies of nefarious regimes; and they can throttle or shut down our free speech if they so desire, without going via a court.

Decentralising the way in which we converse online means we can reclaim some of that power. A few years ago I posted a link to a blog post on Dave Winter’s Scripting News which sets out the practical and political importance of this idea: by spreading out, we’re harder to stop.

Mastodon is an open source project, so anyone can install it on a server and run a Mastodon ‘instance’. The software uses a principle called ‘federation’ to allow users to see messages posted on other instances of the software. So people who signed up on (say) can view and respond to messages posted to (which is the version I signed up to with the username @robertsharp).

Problem solved, then? Not really. Continue reading “Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon”

Photography Imbued with Sadness

photographs of human rights defenders which are taken and the person knows that this photo might be used at a later point in time to raise awareness, when he or she is in prison or vanished.

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading “Photography Imbued with Sadness”

We should rethink ‘NSFW’

We should label sporting images NSFW

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.

Tweets from Tahrir

I am surprised I missed this as the time: Tweets from Tahrir. Its a compilation of tweets from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns.  During the protests I suggested that the protestors in ‘the world’s biggest think-tank’ publish their hopes for the future of Egypt and that new technologies could help them do it very quickly.  Idle and Nunns appear to have got this precise project published within a month.

This book obviously owes something to James Bridle’s TweetBook.  It is also a companion to books like We Are Iran and Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, two collections drawn from blogs and activists, and supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme.

To ‘publish’ means giving up control

I had not read the term ‘fauxtroversy’ before now, but I think Dorian Lynskey uses it perfectly in his New Statesman article about the Kent Youth Commissioner Paris Brown. 17 year-old Paris has been forced to resign from her appointment, following ‘exposure’ of inappropriate tweets… Some written years ago. The views expressed would be surprising coming from the feed of, ooh, let us say, a thirty-something blogger and campaigner for PEN. But not from a young teenager. Outbursts, inarticulacy, immature, ill-thought-out and prejudiced views are as much a part of adolescence as spots, puberty, resentment of your parents, and fancying inappropriate, unattainable people.

The great thing about voicing ridiculous and ill-considered political views, is that people challenge them. There is nothing like being scrutinised on a stupid, unsophisticated political position to realise that life and politics are nuanced and complex.

Continue reading “To ‘publish’ means giving up control”

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Retreat To The Corporate Silos

Here is a technology trend I have spotted: it may be old hat to experts and tech journalists, but its news to me.

First, I installed iOS 6 for my iPhone this week. As had been extensively trailed, Apple has switched out the Google Maps app for its own, proprietary mapping service. It is a weaker product.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from IFTTT (If This, Then That, an excellent tool that allows you to automate many tasks between online services, such as cross-posting blogs, auto-tweeting, or logging your social media activity). The e-mail said:

In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers, disabling your ability to push tweets to places like email, Evernote and Facebook.

This is really irritating, as I use IFTTT for many Twitter related tasks.

So, in a single week, I’ve been inconvenienced by the decision of two of the biggest brands in technology to stop co-operating with other services. There is no law that says that they must collaborate, of course, but this is still a dismal state of affairs. I wonder if these announcements might be the beginning of a new era of unco-operation, with more and more products becoming locked, proprietary, and incompatible with one another. I cannot see how this can be good for innovation, small businesses and start-ups in the sector, or the users… Though I do see how it might maximise revenue for the big companies.

The previous high-minded rhetoric that came from these companies makes their current revenue-maximising attitude all the more galling. It has become trite to point out how Apple has changed since it premiered its famous Nineteen Eighty-Four advert at the Superbowl; and Google’s motto was “do no evil”. These latest manœvres, retreating into the corporate silos, are a reminder of the corrupting influence of power and money, and puts one in the mind of the final passages of Animal Farm, when it becomes impossible to tell man from pig, pig from man.

I await deliverance with an iOS 6 Jailbreak.

Betting Against Page 3

Well well, this is interesting. The bookmaker Paddy Power have offered odds on a petition reaching 100,000 signatures. It’s 4/1 in September and 7/4 in October.

It will be interesting to see if this affects the rate at which people sign the petition. If it does, then we will see a new era of campaigning. Just as now, activists spend time trying to get re-tweeted by Stephen Fry, in the future Ladbrokes and Paddy Power may become targets of the same kind of secondary lobbying.

But there is more: there is a kind of open source game theory on offer here. If everyone in the country who agreed to sign the petition, while placing a £10 bet, we would all get paid for our social activism!

At the time of writing, the petition only has 26,000 signatures. So the conservative analyst would not favour September. However, we have seen in the recent past how social media and we interconnectivity it brings can have exponential effects. Remember how Claire Squires posthumously raised almost £1 million for the Samaritans.

I don’t know much about how bookies set their odds on certain outcomes, but participating in this particular ‘market’ seems odd. Unlike a sporting event, an election, or a financial exchange, there is no other person, group or team that can adversely affect the rate at which the figure in question rises. It’s not as if there is a counter petition, and the bookies are taking bets on a race between the two. Opponents of this campaign cannot marshal their own supporters in a comparable way. So the bet is simply about how quickly a political constituency can mobilise itself. I wonder if someone who knows more about this might comment?

I am entirely in favour of the petition, by the way. In my opinion, page 3 demeans and objectifies women. A formal ban on this kind of publication would be anti-free expression, but social pressure on an editor to make a particular decision is entirely right and proper.

xkcd: Native Internet Art

This is art that is native to the internet.

xkcd is an online comic strip that has gained a cult following. Penned by Randall Munroe, it presents naif, stick-like figures doing strange, wonderful and weird things. There is a strong geek element to the cartoons, with physics jokes, science fiction references, and spin-off comic What If? which seeks to answer absurd questions with mathematical precision.

I love the sentiment which imbues the comics. Its wistful, and has an appropriate sense of awe at humanity, the world, and the universe.  However, I can see how others might find it whimsical, precious or twee.

xkcd: Click and drag - opening panels

The latest cartoon in the series, Click and Drag, is really something.  A man clutching a balloon drifts over the landscape.  “From the stories, I expected the world to be sad, and it was. And I expected it to be wonderful.  And it was. I just didn’t expect it to be so big.”

Underneath this is a large panel with a cartoon landscape.  The reader can click and drag to reveal more of the image, and see little vignettes featuring other stick figures, pop-culture references, and rendering of architectural structures and geological features.  Its a huge image in total, approximately 160,000 pixels wide, and so clicking and dragging takes a long time!

Why is this so good?  Commenter Pochacco has a good, simple analysis on the NeoGAF meesage boards:

I have a feeling the author is trying to troll us.
It’s so “big” that you can’t see it all. You will miss some parts and it will haunt you. Just like life.

I suspect this is right.

But there’s more: This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare.  While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online.  The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.  Users on the NeoGAF board are busy trying to download the entire panorama in its entirety, but doing that is a mistake that spoils enjoyment of the cartoon – that you can only see a small part of the image at any one time, and that you may miss something, is precsiely the point.