Archive for March, 2014

SK Combinator Conservancy

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Just announced, Karen Sandler is now Executive Director of Software Freedom Conservancy, Bradley Kuhn its Distinguished Technologist. I have a huge amount of respect for the work and knowledge of both of them, and assert that their combined expertise on free and open source software policy and nonprofit governance is unmatched anywhere. Read the announcement for details.

Software Freedom Conservancy logo

If you’re running a free/open source software project having reached the stage of needing an organizational home (e.g., to handle funds and legal), consider applying to become a Conservancy member project (n.b. I’m on the new project evaluation committee and the Conservancy board).

Donate to Conservancy directly, to one of its current member projects, or to its nonprofit accounting software project (my endorsement).

Wikipedia: Conservancy, Kuhn, Sandler, and SK combinator calculus, more commonly known as SKI combinator calculus.

Listen to Free as in Freedom, a podcast hosted by Sandler and Kuhn. Does this change make the timely release of a new episode more or less likely? ☻ I’ve appeared on FaiF and its predecessor.

Addendum: Posts from Kuhn and Sandler.

Counter-donate in support of marriage equality and other Mozilla-related notes

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

I’m a huge fan of Mozilla and think their work translates directly into more human rights and equality. So like many other people, I find it pretty disturbing that their new CEO, Brendan Eich, donated US$1000 in support of banning same sex marriage. True, this is scrutiny beyond which most organizations’ leaders would receive, and Mozilla in deed seems to have excellent support for LGBT employees, endorsed by Eich, and works to make all welcome in the Mozilla community. But I think Evan Prodromou put it well:

If you lead an organization dedicated to human rights, you need to be a defender of human rights.

Maybe Eich will change his mind. Perhaps he believes an ancient text attributed to an ultra powerful being commands him to oppose same sex marriage. Believers have come around to support all kinds of liberal values and practices in spite of such texts. Perhaps he considers marriage an illegitimate institution and would prefer equality arrive through resetting marriage to civil unions for all, or something more radical. I can comprehend this position, but it isn’t happening this generation, and is no excuse for delaying what equality can be gained now.

Freedom to Marry logoIn the meantime one thing that Mozilla supporters might do to counter Eich’s support for banning same sex marriage, short of demanding he step down (my suspicion is that apart from this he’s the best person for the job; given what the mobile industry is, someone from there would likely be a threat to the Mozilla mission) is to “match” it in kind, with counter-donations to organizations supporting equal rights for LGBT people.

Freedom to Marry seems to be the most directly counter to Eich’s donation, so that’s what I donated to. The Human Rights Campaign is probably the largest organization. There are many more in the U.S. and around the world. Perhaps Eich could counter his own donation with one to an organization working on more basic rights where homosexuality is criminalized (of course once that is taken care of, they’ll demand the right to marry too).

Other Mozilla-related notes that I may otherwise never get around to blogging:

  • Ads in new tabs (“directory tiles”) have the potential to be very good. More resources for Mozilla would be good, “diversification” or not. Mozilla’s pro-user stance ought make their design and sales push advertisers in the direction of signaling trustworthiness, and away from the premature optimization of door-to-door sales. They should hire Don Marti, or at least read his blog. But the announcement of ads in new tabs was needlessly unclear.
  • Persona/BrowserID is brilliant, and with wide adoption would make the web a better place and further the open web. I’m disappointed Mozilla never built it into Firefox, and has stopped paying for development, handing it over to the community. But I still hold out some hope. Mozilla will continue to provide infrastructure indefinitely. Thunderbird seems to have done OK as a community development/Mozilla infrastructure project. And the problem still needs to be solved!
  • Contrary to just about everyone’s opinions it seems, I don’t think Mozilla’s revenue being overwhelmingly from Google is a threat, a paradox, or ironic. The default search setting would be valuable without Google. Just not nearly as valuable, because Google is much better at search and search ads than its nearest competitors. Mozilla has demonstrated with FirefoxOS that they’re willing to compete directly with Google in a hugely valuable market (mobile operating systems, against Android). I have zero inside knowledge, but I’d bet that Mozilla would jump at the chance to compete with Google on search or ads, if they came upon an approach which could reasonably be expected to be superior to Google’s offerings in some significant ways (to repeat, unlike Google’s nearest search and ads competitors today). Of course Mozilla is working on an ads product (first item), leveraging Firefox real estate rather than starting two more enormous projects (search and search ads; FirefoxOS must be enough for now).
  • The world needs a safe systems programming language. There have been and are many efforts, but Mozilla-developed Rust seems to have by far the most promise. Go Rust!
  • Li Gong of Mozilla Taiwan and Mozilla China was announced as Mozilla’s new COO at the same time Eich was made CEO. I don’t think this has been widely noted. My friend Jon Phillips has been telling me for years that Li Gong is the up and coming power. I guess that’s right.

I’m going to continue to use Firefox as my main browser, I’ll probably get a FirefoxOS phone soon, and I hope Mozilla makes billions with ads in new tabs. As I wrote this post Mozilla announced it supports marriage equality as an organization (even if the CEO doesn’t). Still, make your counter-donation.

Innovation Policy in a World With Less Scarcity

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Mark Lemley’s new paper IP in a World Without Scarcity provides good overviews of the case “that on the Internet, we increasingly get creativity in spite of, rather than because of, IP law” — the exclusivity incentive for creation story, if it were ever true, is drowning in non-exclusive creativity, and theories that distribution and revelation also require an exclusivity incentive also seem quaint given the Internet — and of 3D printing, general purpose robotics, and synthetic biology, which “share two essential characteristics with the Internet: they radically reduce the cost of production and distribution of things, and they separate the informational content of those things (the design) from their manufacture.” Thus, Lemley argues, economics and policy need increasingly to grapple with an end to scarcity, IP will be increasingly important, and we can draw lessons from the Internet about how this all will and should play out.

The paper is a quick read at 55 double-spaced pages. I recommend it to anyone interested in near future technology and policy. The paper’s final sentence:

Thinking about such questions has been the province of science fiction authors, but understanding what a post-scarcity economy will look like is the great task of economics for the next century.

Lemley cites two SF books very familiar to many readers: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (my positive review) and The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson, which just a few days ago I exploited in a private communication: “…the primer is an interactive learning notebook which adapts as the owner learns, informing a generation of geeks’ vision of education and development. Such tools are increasingly feasible. Will all humans have full access to, and ability to participate in the development of such tools? Only if they are developed in the commons, which will only happen with intentional action.” That’s probably a good segue into my disagreements with and additional idiosyncratic observations about IP in a World Without Scarcity.

By IP, Lemley means intellectual property: mostly copyright, patent, trademark. That has been and will be increasingly a terrible frame for thinking about policy. It gives away the farmfuture to owners of the past, who, as Lemley notes “will fight the death of scarcity” as they have fought the Internet — with more criminalization, more lawsuits, more attempts to fundamentally alter technologies in order to protect their rents. This seems rather suboptimal given that we know the theory upon which IP rests is largely bunk. The alternative, assuming we still only wish to maximize innovation, is to make innovation policy the frame. This makes turning the enclosure dial up or down a sideshow, and pulls in non-enclosure incentives and a host of more indirect and probably much more important determinants of innovation, e.g., education and governance.

The paper provides a couple reasons for focusing on the enclosure version of IP (Lemley doesn’t need any reason; he’s an IP scholar, and though I wish such people would reconceptualize themselves as commons scholars, I have no expectation; in any case the “reasons” are my reading). First, the framing isn’t as harmful as I made it out to be, because IP owners’ fight against the Internet “didn’t work. Copyright infringement remains rampant” and against other democratizing technologies, “IP owners will (probably) lose that fight.” But winning isn’t binary, nor is the continued existence of rampant copyright infringement a good indicator.

Given that network effects are highly relevant for many kinds of knowledge products — a tool or experience is much more valuable if other people can be expected to know it — a significant level of piracy can be profit-maximizing for an IP rent collector. Better indicators might be the collapse of profits from IP rents (the movie industry continues to grow, and while the recorded music industry has declined from its peak, this is nothing like an icehouse collapse, and many other IP rent sectors continue to grow) and the displacement of IP rent collectors as the marketers the dominant knowledge products of the age by other entities better adapted to a world in which fighting against the Internet doesn’t work (the mass and high-status markets are dominated by IP rent collectors in nearly all fields, exceptions being encyclopedias and certain kinds of infrastructure software). These might be minor, highly debatable (maybe the music industry will soon recommence a full collapse, be joined by movies, both displaced by crowdfunding and crowdmarketing; I doubt it given the properties controlled by IP rent collectors and other entities’ unchanged desperation to cut unfavorable deals with them) quibbles, if the IP owners’ “losing” fight against the Internet hadn’t significantly damaged the Internet.

But the Internet has been damaged by the IP owners’ fight. Absent an academic characterization of how significant that damage is (which I would love to read), here are some of the ways:

  • Chilling effect on P2P research, result: more centralization;
  • Services police user content; expensive, barrier to entry, result: more centralization, near monopoly platforms;
  • Services cut rare and unfavorable deals with IP owners, result: same;
  • Innovative services fail to cut deals, or sustainable deals, with IP owners, result: less innovation, more Internet as TV;
  • Monopoly abets monopoly; creates opportunities for bundling monopolies, result: threat to net neutrality;
  • Copyright-based censorship provides cover for all kinds of political censorship, result: political censors have additional justification, doing what Hollywood does;
  • All of above centralization and monopoly makes dominant entities a target for compromise, result: mass surveillance and non-state cybercrime abetted;
  • Our imagination and expectation of what the Internet makes possible is diminished, result: DRM TV and radio and silos organized for spying are seen as the norm, information organized for public benefit such as Wikipedia, unusual; this flipping of democratic hopes for the Internet, a partial AOL scenario, is collateral damage from the IP owners’ war on the Internet.

Similar damage will be done to the potential of new technologies with Internet-like characteristics (in addition to those discussed in the paper, others add the Internet of Things, distributed energy generation, and educational technologies, e.g., Jeremy Rifkin in his new book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which I plan to review soon) by incumbents. This makes Lemley’s policy recommendations seem overly tentative and timid:

[It] is hard to translate this skepticism into immediate policy prescriptions, both because the whole point is that the need for IP will be sensitive to individual industry characteristics and because the technologies I am discussing are still in their infancy […] “we should resist the tendency to expand IP reflexively to meet every new technological challenge” […] “IP owners should not be allowed to reach beyond suing infringers and seek to shut down or modify the technology itself” […] “IP law needs to make it easier for creators to opt out of the IP regime.”

IP rent collectors will not hold off protecting their interests pending idealized analysis of more fully developed technologies. The damage they do will be built into another generation of technology and society, with IP scholars and activists left to worry that policy is contrary to evidence and to take rearguard actions to protect the level of openness they’ve become accustomed to, but fail to imagine what would have been possible had the stranglehold of IP rent collectors been broken. Just like the Internet today. I’ll come back to less timid and more proactive policy response in a bit.

Second reason for focus on the enclosure version of IP, the usual — big budget movies (and regulated pharma, mentioned earlier in the paper):

There is still a role for IP on the Internet. There are some works that are so costly to create even in the digital world that they are unlikely to be made without effective IP protection. Big-budget movies and video games cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. No amount of creative fire will drive someone who doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to make Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. They need corporate backing, and the corporate backers need a revenue stream. But in the Internet era those works are increasingly the the exception, not the rule.

My usual response — we should allow enclosure of our freedom, equality, and the democratic potential of the Internet in order to ensure an ongoing supply of spectacle provided in the same way it has for decades? Spectacle over freedom, really? Of course the “reason” is far more pessimal than that, as the cost of producing and distributing spectacle is going down fast, as is the cost of coordinating distributed patrons who want product, not rent collection. Further, because culture is also so dominated by network effects, we’ll all love whatever spectacle is produced, whether it took 15 or 500 months of work per minute of spectacle. It’s not as insane to contemplate threatening liberal values in order to get new drugs as it is to get new movies — but then considering non-enclosure mechanisms for developing and evaluating new drugs, and the issues of access and equality are more pressing…

More Lemley:

IP is essentially a form of government regulation. The government restricts entry into the market, or alternatively controls the price at which that entry can occur, in order to serve valuable social ends. But regulation is not a moral entitlement or something that we must take for granted. In the past, government regulated all sorts of industries – railroads, trucking, electric power, gas, telephones – because it could not see given the economics of those industries how a free market could produce socially optimal results. But in a surprising number of cases, when we deregulated those industries we found that the market could indeed find a way to supply goods we thought would be provided only with government rule-making. IP is no different in this respect than any other form of regulation. Regulation as a whole shouldn’t disappear, but regulation of particular industries often turns out to be a reflexive response to a failure of imagination, something we do because we have done it for so long that we cannot imagine how a market in that industry could function without it.

This is certainly superior to the rights/owner/property characterization inherent in IP — it recasts “owners” as beneficiaries of regulation — and I think implicitly makes the case for switching one’s frame from intellectual property to innovation policy. That leads us to what the goal of “innovation policy” regulation ought be, and sufficiently proactive policies to achieve that. Should the goal be to maximize “innovation”, “creativity”, the “progress of science and useful arts”, or the like? It would be a huge improvement to sideline enclosure as the primary mechanism and retain the same top objective. But even that improvement would be short sighted, given how systematically innovation policy regulation has and will increasingly shape society. A success of imagination would be to make freedom and equality the top objectives of and constraints on innovation policy, and only then maximize innovation. The innovations generated by a free and equal society are the ones I want. Others are to be gawked at with dismay and guilt.

On proactive policies required, in brief they are pro-commons policies, and I return to Benkler:

Regulators concerned with fostering innovation may better direct their efforts toward providing the institutional tools that would help thousands of people to collaborate without appropriating their joint product, making the information they produce freely available rather than spending their efforts to increase the scope and sophistication of the mechanisms for private appropriation of this public good as they now do.

That we cannot fully understand a phenomenon does not mean that it does not exist. That a seemingly growing phenomenon refuses to fit our longstanding perceptions of how people behave and how economic growth occurs counsels closer attention, not studied indifference and ignorance. Commons-based peer production presents a fascinating phenomenon that could allow us to tap substantially underutilized reserves of human creative effort. It is of central importance that we not squelch peer production, but that we create the institutional conditions needed for it to flourish.

Which implies that commons scholarship ought displace intellectual property scholarship (except as a historical investigation of commons malgovernance).

I realize that I haven’t provided any specific pro-commons policy recommendations in this post, nevermind any that are especially pertinent in a world with less scarcity. I’m deeply skeptical that lower, different costs substantially change innovation policy or knowledge commons arguments — the same ones have recurred since at least the 1800s — and am extremely doubtful that the usual assumption that digital networks fundamentally change desirable policy (or here, that further technologies with digital network like characterizations further change desirable policy) is true or non-harmful — these assumptions give away (legitimize) the past to those who now use it to control the future. Some short term and narrow but valuable pro-commons policy suggestions arising from the Wikimedia movement; the free software movement offers other suggestions, if we take some of its practices as prototypes for regulation enforced by mechanisms other than copyright holder whim, more powerful and better aligned with its claims of software freedom as a human right.

A few final quotes from Lemley’s IP in a World Without Scarcity, first two from footnotes:

The challenge posed to copyright by collective production sites like Wikipedia is not just one of the need for incentives. Collective production challenges the whole concept of authorship.

Indeed, and as I keep repeating effective product competition from the commons (such as Wikipedia) re-imagines the range of desirable policy and reduces the resources available to enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism — in sum shifting what is politically possible.

It is possible that creators create in hopes of being one of the few superstars whose work is actually rewarded by copyright law. It is well known that people systematically overvalue the prospect of a large but unlikely reward; that’s why they buy lottery tickets. Some scholars have suggested that the same effect may be at work in IP. But if so, the incentive on which we rely is, as Kretschmer puts it, “based on a systematic cognitive mistake.” In effect, we are coaxing works out of these creators by lying to them about their chances of getting paid.

This has long struck me as being the case. The question is then (in addition to considerations above), do we really want a culture dominated by fools and sell-outs?

A world without scarcity requires a major rethinking of economics, much as the decline of the agrarian economy did in the 19th century. How will our economy function in a world in which most of the things we produce are cheap or free? We have lived with scarcity for so long that it is hard even to begin to think about the transition to a post-scarcity economy. IP has allowed us to cling to scarcity as an organizing principle in a world that no longer demands it. But it will no more prevent the transition than agricultural price supports kept us all farmers. We need a post-scarcity economics, one that accepts rather than resists the new opportunities technology will offer us. Developing that economics is the great task of the 21st century.

But we should aim for much better than the travesty of developed country agricultural policy (even before considering its baneful intersection with IP) as the legacy of this transition! But the consequences of continued capture of innovation policy have the potential to be far worse. Even if few are employed in information industries, there is no transition on the way to displace arranging information as the dominant mode of the economy (however measured; previous modes being hunting/gathering, agriculture, and industry); if the mode is largely controlled by rent collectors, the result could be a very unfree and unequal society — perhaps on the order of pre-industrial agricultural societies.

Document marketing freedom 0.1

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Yesterday (emphasis added):

Microsoft’s DOS-based version of Word, first released in 1983, was not a success against the dominant word processor of that era, WordPerfect. The 1989 release of Word for Windows changed all that: within four years it was generating over half the worldwide word processing market revenue. It was a remarkable marketing and engineering achievement. We are today revealing the technical magic by releasing the source code to version 1.1a of Word for Windows.

Today (March 26) is Document Freedom Day, promoting open standards. I’m all for open standards, particularly as a matter of policy at all levels, and hats off to DFD for any increased awareness of the rationale for open standards and demand for open standards that result from DFD activities. But non-open formats’ domination of word processing and many other fields is not due to advocacy of closed standards, and I doubt generic advocacy of open formats will lead to the liberation of word processing or any other field.

Individuals and organizations adopt specific software. There’s lots of remarkable engineering behind specific programs which implement open standards. Remarkable marketing (broadly construed — any sales or adoption effort) of such programs? It should be no surprise that free/open products (this applies to much more than software) in almost all mass markets remain marginal — the result of failure to compete with proprietary/closed vendors on marketing (previously stated).

In my DFD post last year I called out LibreOffice and Jitsi as open standard implementing programs needing promotion. Each has made lots of engineering progress in the past year. Please let me know if I’ve missed corresponding marketing progress. (This is not a criticism of either project. I’m sure they’d each love marketing help. LibreOffice does have some community marketing efforts.)

Granted, remarkable marketing of free/open products might be as different from marketing of proprietary/closed products as engineering/provisioning of same can be different, and public policy advocacy might be a disproportionate part of remarkable free/open marketing. But lack of direct competition in the non-policy market seems to make free/open policy advocacy much harder — anyone can see when an abstract policy mandating some form of open concretely means adopting software or some other product that few people are already using (consider how much value of software and other knowledge products is driven by network effects) — a tough sell.

Producing Open Source Software (2005) gathers lots of wisdom and a 2nd edition is due this year. I suspect we’re at about 1995 for a hypothetical Marketing Open Source Software (and other open stuff) — not much wisdom to gather, and lots of doubt about whether out-marketing proprietary/closed vendors is even feasible.

Hazard Records 015

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Hazard Records 002 cover with no copyright notice

Barcelona-based avant/improv/appropriation/noise CD-R and now netlabel Hazard Records celebrates its 15th anniversary today (March 25). All of their releases are dedicated to the public domain (recent ones using CC0; for the trivia-oriented, note their pre-CC “no rights reserved” in the cover image above). I’ve been a dedicated listener since not long after they started uploading to the Internet Archive in 2004, 76 albums as of now, with one more each of the next four weeks coming in celebration of the anniversary. My top 4 easy listening recommendations…

Anton Ignorant – S/S Magick For Abused Speakers [HR017] (meditative noise)

Breuss Arrizabalaga Quintet – Nfamoudou-Boudougou [HR038] (free jazz)

Joan Bagés i Rubí – Miscel.lània Sonora [HR053] (avant miscellany)

XMARX – Unhazardous Songs [HR060] (rock ‘n’ ‘ropriation)

Unfortunately many Hazard Records albums on the Internet Archive don’t have embedded artist/album/title metadata in the ogg/mp3/flac downloads; this being one of the main motivations behind my wishlist for that site. But nobody downloads anymore and the Internet Archive has a passable (for now, if you’re not totally expecting uninterrupted play across pages that newer sites support) embedded player, used in this post and on the site. Listen, enjoy, and share…links.

Bonus recommendation:

Musica Veneno – Whole Lotta Love Story [HR015] (intra-label appropriation)

Happy 15 Hazardous years! I’m looking forward to the next 80 records.

Empathy for the Gooseberry

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

You’ve almost certainly seen at least snippets of the Blender Foundation’s four short animated films Elephants Dream (2006), Big Buck Bunny (2008), Sintel (2010) and Tears of Steel (2012; my blog post riffing on a memorable scene) — because they’re high quality and freely licensed for any use (CC-BY) they’re frequently used in demos.

Now Blender Foundation (who primarily make the free software Blender 3D modeling, animation, video editing, and more program; they use open movie projects to push the software forward) is working on a feature-length animated film, Gooseberry, which would mark a new milestone (Sita Sings the Blues will surely remain the best feature length free film of any sort, but was made with non-free software and is 2D).

They have an ambitious crowdfunding goal of €500,000 to support the project. I pledged and hope you’ll join me. A few interesting bits from the campaign FAQ:

What quality can we expect? Like, compared to Sintel, or a Pixar movie?

As magic number for budget calculations, I use the “Months of work per minute of film”. This is including writing, coders, art, production.

For Big Buck Bunny that was 6. For Sintel it was 10. For Gooseberry we daringly want to go to 15 even. For a Disney or Pixar film, this number is easily 300 to 500. Go figure! But our film will be better than Sintel or BBB for sure.

What is this “exploitation window”

Even though everything will be free/open source, we will reserve for the final movie (renders, final edit, grade) a short period of exploitation. That ‘window’ is 3 months, starting at the official premiere (our own, or on film festival). Film distributors can pay us for the exclusive rights to show the film in theaters during that period. Or TV stations, or Netflix! After that, all gates go open and we release it as CC-BY for everyone.

I can’t complain about the non-free “exploitation window”, as there’s zero infrastructure for marketing and distributing free-as-in-freedom films; in the short term, the window might get the film to a wider audience and thus build its cultural relevance and value as a free film after the window. The existence of free and culturally relevant films will be a huge help to any eventual such marketing and distribution infrastructure, so best of luck to the Gooseberry team in all respects.

There’s another short made with Blender in progress called Wires For Empathy:

A 3D animated short film based in free/libre software, Tube is also a new experiment in distributed collaboration. It plays on the ancient Gilgamesh poem, in a variant of the hero’s progress that becomes the animation’s own frames.

The trailer looks great:

Sympathy for the Strawberry is not one of my favorite Sonic Youth tracks, but the above titles made me think of it. I would heavily contribute to a crowdfunded free-as-in-freedom album by a reunited band sans Thurston Moore, call it Free Sonic Youth. Which part (free or Thurston-free) is most unlikely?

Most email newsletters are spam, file accordingly

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Bare URLs are useful, for example:

  • they give users some idea of where a click will take them,
  • allow the browser to indicate to the user whether they’ve already gone there and otherwise act as agent in user’s interest,
  • allow the user to bookmark for later use without visiting first (and have the bookmark be intelligible, due to first item), and
  • help the user to copy and share link without looking like an inconsiderate fool or spammer, passing along above benefits.

When all of the links in a newsletter are opaque redirects, such as…–FFFFFFFFFFFFFF-FFFFFFFFFFFF==

…we know that the sending organization…

  • cares more about tracking the reader than providing useful information to the reader, and
  • probably [wants to] waste the reader’s money, assuming the reader is a [potential] customer or donor, expending staff and stakeholder time on presenting and reviewing facile and misleading click metrics rather than doing a better job.

…you might not want to unsubscribe, because you might want information from the partially stupid organization sending such inconsiderate email newsletters. But do tell them to be considerate, and in the meantime, file accordingly.

Free Bassel & Open Borders Days

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

March 15, another year of Bassel Khartibil’s life as a political prisoner in Syria. Some friends put together a cookbook (pdf) with meals they’d like to share with him when he is free.

Macabre image for a macabre situation.

March 16 is Open Borders Day. Bassel apparently returned to Syria voluntarily. There are millions who have little chance of leaving dictatorships, war zones, and grinding poverty — not because they are imprisoned by the local regime, but because we allow the international apartheid system to stand.

WWW next 25: Universal, Secure, Resilient?

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Today folks seem to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of a 1989 proposal for what is now the web — implementation released to the public in August, 1991.

Q&A with web inventor Timothy Berners-Lee: 25 years on, the Web still needs work.

The web is pretty great, much better than easily imagined alternatives. Three broad categories it could improve in:

  • Universality. All humans should be able to access the web, and this should be taken to include being able to publish, collaborate, do business, and run software on the web, in any manner, in any language or other interface. Presently, billions aren’t on the net at all, activity outside of a handful of large services is very expensive (in money, expertise, or marketing), and machine translation and accessibility are very limited.
  • Security. All of the above, securely, without having to understand anything technical about security, and with lots of technical and cultural guards against technical and non-technical attacks of all kinds.
  • Resilience. All of the above, with minimal interruption and maximal recovery from disaster, from individual to planetary scale.

Three pet outcomes I wish for:

  • Collective wisdom. The web helps make better decisions, at all scales.
  • Commons dominance. Most top sites are free-as-in-freedom. Presently, only Wikipedia (#5) is.
  • Freedom, equality, etc.

Two quotes from the Berners-Lee Q&A that are on the right track:

Getting a nice user interface to a secure system is the art of the century.

Copyright law is terrible.

Gov[ernance]Lab impressions

Friday, March 7th, 2014

First, two excerpts of my previous posts to explain my rationale for this one. 10 months ago:

I wonder the extent to which reform of any institution, dominant or otherwise, away from capture and enclosure, toward the benefit and participation of all its constituents, might be characterized as commoning?

Whatever the scope of commoning, we don’t know how to do it very well. How to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control, can boggle the mind. I suspect there is tremendous room to increase the freedom and equality of all humans through learning-by-doing (and researching) more activities in a commons-orientated way. One might say our lack of knowledge about the commons is a tragedy.


Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

I read about the Governance Lab @ NYU (GovLab) in a forward of a press release:

Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people.

That sounded interesting, perhaps not deceivingly — as I browsed the site, open tabs accumulated. Notes on some of those follow.

GovLab’s hypothesis:

When institutions open themselves to diverse participation and collaborative problem solving, they become more effective and the decisions they make are more legitimate.

I like this coupling of effectiveness and legitimacy. Another way of saying politics isn’t about policy is that governance isn’t about effectiveness, but about legitimizing power. I used to scoff at the concept of legitimacy, and my mind still boggles at arrangements passing as “legitimate” that enable mass murder, torture, and incarceration. But our arrangements are incredibly path dependent and hard to improve; now I try to charitably consider legitimacy a very useful shorthand for arrangements that have some widely understood and accepted level of effectiveness. Somewhat less charitably: at least they’ve survived, and one can do a lot worse than copying survivors. Arrangements based on open and diverse participation and collaborative problem solving are hard to legitimate: not only do they undermine what legitimacy is often really about, it is hard to see how they can work in theory or practice, relative to hierarchical command and control. Explicitly tackling effectiveness and legitimacy separately and together might be more useful than assuming one implies the other, or ignoring one of them. Refutation of the hypothesis would also be useful: many people could refocus on increasing the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchical, closed systems.

If We Only Knew:

What are the essential questions that if answered could help accelerate the transformation of how we solve public problems and provide for public goods?

The list of questions isn’t that impressive, but not bad either. The idea that such a list should be articulated is great. Every project ought maintain such a list of essential questions pertinent to the project’s ends!

Proposal 13 for ICANN: Provide an Adjudication Function by Establishing “Citizen” Juries (emphasis in original):

As one means to enhance accountability – through greater engagement with the global public during decision-making and through increased oversight of ICANN officials after the fact – ICANN could pilot the use of randomly assigned small public groups of individuals to whom staff and volunteer officials would be required to report over a given time period (i.e. “citizen” juries). The Panel proposes citizen juries rather than a court system, namely because these juries are lightweight, highly democratic and require limited bureaucracy. It is not to the exclusion of other proposals for adjudicatory mechanisms.

Anyone interested in random selection and juries has to be at least a little interesting, and on the right track. Or so I’ve thought since hearing about the idea of science courts and whatever my first encounter with sortition advocacy was (forgotten, but see most recent), both long ago.

Quote in a quote:

“The largest factor in predicting group intelligence was the equality of conversational turn-taking.”

What does that say about:

  • Mailing lists and similar fora used by projects and organizations, often dominated by loudmouths (to say nothing of meetings dominated by high-status talkers);
  • Mass media, including social media dominated by power law winners?

Surely it isn’t pretty for the intelligence of relevant groups. But perhaps impetus to actually implement measures often discussed when a forum gets out of control (e.g., volume or flamewars) such as automated throttling, among many other things. On the bright side, there could be lots of low hanging fruit. On the dim side, I’m surely making extrapolations (second bullet especially) unsupported by research I haven’t read!

Coordinating the Commons: Diversity & Dynamics in Open Collaborations, excerpt from a dissertation:

Learning from Wikipedia’s successes and failures can help researchers and designers understand how to support open collaborations in other domains — such as Free/Libre Open Source Software, Citizen Science, and Citizen Journalism. […] To inquire further, I have designed a new editor peer support space, the Wikipedia Teahouse, based on the findings from my empirical studies. The Teahouse is a volunteer-driven project that provides a welcoming and engaging environment in which new editors can learn how to be productive members of the Wikipedia community, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of newcomers who go on to make substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

Interesting for a few reasons:

  • I like the title, cf. commons coordination (though I was primarily thinking of inter-project/movement coordination);
  • OpenHatchy;
  • I like the further inquiry’s usefulness for research and the researched community;
  • Improving the effectiveness of mass collaboration is important, including for its policy effects.

Back to the press release:

Support for the Network from will be used to build technology platforms to solve problems more openly and to run agile, real-world, empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs to discover what can enhance collaboration and decision-making in the public interest.

I hope those technology platforms will be open to audit and improvement by the public, i.e., free/open source software. GovLab’s site being under an open license (CC-BY-SA) could be a small positive indicator (perhaps not rising to the level of an essential question for anyone, but I do wonder how release and use of “content” or “data” under an open license correlates with release and use of open source software, if there’s causality in either direction, and if there could be interventions that would usefully reinforce any such).

I’m glad that NGOs are a target. Seems it ought be easier to adopt and spread governance innovation among NGOs (and businesses) than among governments, if only because there’s more turnover. But I’m not impressed. I imagine this could be due, among other things, to my ignorance: perhaps over a reasonable time period non-state governance has improved more rapidly than state governance, or to non-state governance being even less about effectiveness and more about power than is state governance, or to governance being really unimportant for survival, thus a random walk.

Something related I’ll never get around to blogging separately: the 2 year old New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (summary), concerning the danger of allowing term to denote a government that publishes data, even merely politically insensitive data around service provision, rather than politically sensitive transparency and ability to demand accountability. I agree about the danger. The authors recommend maintaining distinctions between accountability, service provision, and adaptability of data. I find these distinctions aren’t often made explicit, and perhaps they shouldn’t be: it’d be a pain. But on the activist side, I think most really are pushing for politically sensitive transparency (and some focused on data about service provision might fairly argue such is often deeply political); certainly none want open data to be a means of openwashing. For one data point, I recommend the Oakland chapter of Beyond Transparency. Finally, Stop Secret Contracts seems like a new campaign entirely oriented toward politically sensitive transparency and accountability rather than data release. I hope they get beyond petitions, but I signed.