Internet Access as a Human Right

I am constantly connected, both at home and at work, often via multiple devices. And it’s not just my phone and laptop, increasingly service apps are online – I can control my apartment temperature  from the other side of the world via an app. Lots of services are online, I do all my banking online, I’ll do my tax return online soon. I’ll shop online, including for dinner delivered. At work I’m online all the time. My functional life is online – if wifi goes down I’m really stuck. So internet is hugely important. But is it a human right?

The original UN Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the internet, but then it was written in the 1940s so that’s not surprising. However it does list a number of rights that are increasingly accessed via the internet, including the right to;

  • take part in the government of his country,
  • equal access to public service in his country.
  • work, to free choice of employment
  • education.
  • participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

These are all available online

It’s only a matter of time before these are available only via the internet. It’s such a clear trend that in 2011 the UN declared internet access a human right, noting;

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

But what action follows this declaration? How can governments ensure that access is fair? And what happens when fair access does not exist?

There are a lot of government and business initiatives to ensure universal access to the internet, although in many cases the individual would still need to provide the device;

  • Costa Rica, Greece, Spain, France, Finland and Estonia have taken legislative steps to enshrine internet access as a right in law.
  • India plans to roll out wifi to 2500 cities.
  • The UK government aims to turn thousands of public buildings into free wifi zones.
  • In the Netherlands network providers are finding ways to open use of customer hotspots.

But not all governments are doing so well. The Syrian regime seems to shut down the internet for hours or days at various times. China famously has “The Great Firewall“, which uses a range of blocking techniques to filter sites and content. And governments of democratic nations aren’t immune to the temptation to turn off internet access in times of crisis, as UK’s PM David Cameron showed during the London riots in 2011 (in this case it did not happen).

But even outside these extreme examples internet access remains very unequal. Jon Gosier, who has worked on some of the big issues of technology inequality, talks about how our thinking around technology as an improver of lives is flawed and asks the vital question – how do we include everyone?

There are a few organisations around the world working on ensuring full internet access, including A Human Right, which in 2012 campaigned to have a planned undersea cable moved 500km south so that it could serve the isolated island of St Helena. Their site and twitter feed appear somewhat moribund so it’s hard to judge real progress.

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a public-private partnership that works to provide affordable broadband and mobile access to the internet for everyone.

But the most interesting “bet” on securing global, universal access to the internet might come from the private sector. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has a vision of creating a “space internet“. And Google have a mad idea involving balloons, called Project Loon, that might just work.

Image: Human Right | Zack Lee |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Through the Prism

The US government has being spying on our online activities. That comes as no surprise, we’ve all seen the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FISA), but what is surprising is that it now appears some companies including Facebook and Google have been allowing the National Security Authority (NSA) of the US government direct access to their data via something called Prism.

Facebook, Google, and now Yahoo have issued public statements stating that they are not working with NSA, but complying with legal requests. In an Orwellian twist the FISA prevents any discussion of any requests made under the act, including whether such requests exist.

Facebook and Google both use the phrase “no direct access to our servers”, which is not the same as “NSA doesn’t get our data”, which they can’t say because (a) they can’t discuss anything around an FISA request and (b) they are obliged to pass on data within legal constraints.

The New York Times article talks about some of the technical changes that have been discussed;

one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said.

Which makes it sound like a technical solution developed to comply with a legal requirement, and certainly far less scary than the “direct access to servers” statement that raised concerns.

Mashable takes a similar view, calling Prism a “data integration API” which the NSA would need to analyse and use the data released. Mashable also suggests that the term “direct access” is used incorrectly in the original slide deck, for the simple reason that it’s difficult – which means expensive – to do.

In many articles these technical solutions, and the fact that the servers to host them belong to the companies are cited as evidence that the companies are somehow collaborating with the NSA making it easy for them to get the data. I suspect it’s the other way around; The companies are building these solutions to make it easy for themselves to comply with the law.

So possibly, probably Facebook et al have been acting legally; but perhaps that’s the scary part.

The underlying laws, the Patriot Act and the FISA, raised concerns when they were passed, with cities opting out of the Patriot act, but now that the connection, and the scale of data requested/shared the concern level has gone up a notch. With commentators raising real concerns about the collection, use and safeguarding of personal data in an increasingly monitored nation. As the Guardian revealed the source of the leaked information as Edward Snowdon yesterday they also published his motives; safeguarding internet freedom.

Cyber security is a real issue, and it needs addressing. The global nature of the internet, and the huge potential unleashed by analysis of big data, make the online world a source of genuine crime-stopping information. But the right to privacy is upheld in the laws and constitutions of many countries and it is being eroded.

It would be easy to dismiss that as an “American problem” but it specifically targets foreigners, and our own governments show worrying tendencies to trample over privacy rights online including the Dutch proposal to give police the right to hack as a cybercrime prevention measure. Despite playing up their “Digital Agenda” in recent months the EU has been strangely silent.

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Image; spying

Revolution 2.0

Revolution 2.0; The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir

I heard Wael Ghonim speak at the Dublin Web Summit last week, and before he’d finished talking I’d purchased the Kindle edition of Revolution 2.0; the power of the people is greater than the people in power – his memoir of the uprising in Egypt.

About a day after the conference I’d finished reading it, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s the story of a growing political awareness of the author, a revolution in a country that had had the same ruler for decades, and the huge power unleashed by social media.

Ghonim applied his marketing skills to build a following by;

  • making sure he connected with similar groups to build momentum,
  • using the language of his audience (the language of Egyptian youth rather than formal Arabic)
  • asking the community for their input, and acting on it
  • including and linking to content from similar sources
  • integrating online and offline by promoting and supporting other protests including the silent stands

His account also points to some online dilemmas, although the Internet started out with the possibility to remain anonymous, that’s not really the case any more and Facebook requires a real person to be behind admin accounts. But if you’re inside a country where the state of emergency has existed for decades or where the state security machine is active against dissidents you want to remain anonymous. Ghonim countered this by having a supporter based in the US listed as the real person, while a small group of activists had the password to the admin account. He also discusses some tools used to disguise where you’re posting from. I suspect that government security teams around the world will study Ghonim’s book, and the relevant social media accounts in order to be ready for the next revolutionaries using social media.

It’s very much an “on the ground” account.The writing is raw, it was written quickly so that the launch would co-incide with the 1year anniversary of the 25 January protest, and as he concedes at the end of the book, outcomes are still unclear.

There is much discussion around the impact social media has in a revolution, is it the beginning of a brave new world? Yes, and no.

Yes – for two reasons; firstly, it enabled smaller disparate groups to connect and start to see the scale their actions could have. Secondly, at least initially, social media took the place of a free press, reporting – almost in real time – the events on the ground. This reporting went global thanks to Egyptian expats who translated some of the content, countering the official press accounts.

No – at a certain point, probably around the first large scale protest on Tahrir Square on 25 January, the real world took over. Without this the social media conversations could be ignored or dismissed by the government.

Social Media acted as a catalyst, sparking a revolution. But it was the men and women on the streets who made the revolution, without their courage to act it was a theoretical discussion.

I was left with deep admiration for the author, for taking his commercial skills a dose of courage and building a foothold for the revolution. A sadness for all those families who lost someone in the revolution, and hope. Hope that the future is brighter.

Fame Wars

I’ve been playing with Google Ngrams. If you’ve never heard of them, here’s an introduction to the concept.

Google have scanned about 50 million books, and a couple of scientists at Harvard figured out some ways to analyse that mountain of data – and Google have developed the ngrams tool based on this analysis.

I was trying to use it to compare fame, so testing pairs or groups of famous people from roughly the same era to see who was more famous. Stephen Hawking beats Stephen Fry, Galileo beats Copernicus most of the time, and Edison beats Tesla (to the consternation of true geeks). Moving into fiction, Captain Kirk beats Hans Solo; but Darth Vader beats both – apparently in the fame stakes it pays to be evil.

But one result amused me more than all the others; Michaelangelo vs Da Vinci. There’s a huge upkick in results for Da Vinci, in the early 2000s, right when Dan Brown published the Da Vinci code.

Da Vinci beats Michaelangelo

Remember that ngrams is referencing mentions of a term in the 50 million books scanned so far – so this huge jump in the number of times the term is used cannot be due to one book alone. Ngrams also lets you drill down and see what was published in that period with the term “Da Vinci”, and indeed a whole range of books on the subject of Da Vinci was published. Everything from biographies, to school books, to books analysing all the errors in Dan Brown’s book.

You need to use the drill down function when playing around with ngrams, I tested “meme” vs “gene”. Gene won, which was no surprise, but I found data for the word meme being used back into the 1800s which was a surprise. But on drilling down it turns out that it’s the French word “meme” that is being counted.

Google Perception

I heard a story about a company that changed the presentation of the search engine on their intranet site. Originally it was a simple text field with a search button.

After the technical team had finished making the updates there was a simple and obvious change to the text field.


Apparently without implementing Google Search Appliances, or indeed signing any contract with Google. The result was a marked improvement in the feedback of intranet users.

The story may be apocryphal, but if not it shows the remarkable positive brand value of Google.

Language Danger

I’m sick of very clever companies guessing which language I want to use based on my location. Google keeps throwing me into Dutch, even if I typed in google.com, do they really think I can’t figure out how to use google.nl? or the advanced search options for that matter.

And Apple keeps throwing iTunes into Dutch. I get that there are copyright issues concerning the content – fine. But why can’t the app itself stay in English? They have the interface in English already.

Please, stop assuming I want to use websites in the language of the country I’m sitting in. How hard is it to give me a language choice?

(And before anyone gets on the integration bandwagon – I can use these sites in Dutch, I just don’t want to).

The World’s Greatest Tech Companies

I read this tweet on July fourth, and I felt a little miffed.

While the companies listed are great in their own way, and they’re registered in the US it’s a pretty big jump from there to “Every great tech company for the past decade is from the US of A.”

Plus, has Twitter made a profit yet? I think Twitter has lots of potential, but if a company has yet to make a profit then it seems a bit odd to listed as the greatest company of any type.

So I dug around and found that BusinessWeek has made a comprehensive analysis of the hottest tech companies for 2009. Their top 10 are;

  1. Amazon (US)
  2. Oracle (US)
  3. SAP (Germany)
  4. Inventec (Taiwan)
  5. IBM (US)
  6. Bharti Airtel (India)
  7. Quanta (Taiwan)
  8. Wistron (Taiwan)
  9. Tencent (China)
  10. Acer (Taiwan)

Google comes in at 37, Facebook and Twitter don’t merit a mention.

Obviously this is a bit of an unfair comparison – the two clearly used very different criteria – but it’s interesting. First of all what criteria should you use? For years Amazon’s high growth led to low or no profits, and now it’s number one, so apparently the BusinessWeek ranking favours established companies rather than new entrants.

I suspect the tweet that started this was a flippant statement rather than the result of a great deal of analysis but it does indicate that the social media companies could be the rising stars; the next Amazons.

But if they are will they be American social media companies? Tencent, listed 9 above, is China’s biggest online chatting company with 400 million users. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential for a social media giant to come out of China, or India for that matter.

 

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