The web’s not what it used to be

So says this article from The New York Times — way back in 2001.

Exploration of World Wide Web tilts from eclectic to mudaneThe New York Times
The new utilitarian view of the Web marks a disappointment for cultural critics who see the medium as fundamentally more democratic than traditional radio, television and newspapers, because the barriers to entry are so low. The Web was supposed to subvert corporate domination of culture by giving a global soapbox — or printing press or television station — to anyone with a computer and a modem. While plenty of people do publish their personal musings and pictures of their babies, new data shows that for many people, the Web has become an electronic routine.

It certainly looks different these days, as this tongue-in-cheek recreation shows.

How I experience the web today

But there are still glimpses of the old web out there, if you know what URL to type — or mistype.

gail.com
Q: Why isn’t there any content here? Can’t you at least throw up a picture of your cat for the Internet to check out?
A: Sorry, I have a cat, but she’s pretty unexciting by Internet standards. As for why there is very little content here, we wanted to keep the server’s attack surface as small as possible to keep it safe.

Q: Interested in selling gail.com?
A: Sorry, no.

Q: How did you manage to get gail.com?
A: My husband registered it as a birthday gift back in 1996.

Q: How many times a day is this page visited?
A: In 2020 this page received a total of 5,950,012 hits, which is an average of 16,257 per day. Looking at just unique hits, we received a total of 1,295,284, for an average of 3,539 unique hits per day. Occasionally, we get Twitter-bombed and may get several tens of thousands of visitors a day. As an example, on July 21st 2020 we received 109,316 hits.

Q: Why is your website so popular? Are you one of those famous people that no one knows why they’re famous?
A: No, I’m not famous. It seems likely that most visitors simply mistype gmail.com and end up visiting gail.com by mistake.

For curiousity’s sake, I right-clicked to ‘view page source’ of this anachronistic little website and was rewarded with this little comment, hence the header image of this post.

Quirky, hand-written html is something I definitely miss from the old web.

The internet’s next leap forward?

Remember when virtual reality was supposed to be the next all-encompassing, technological paradigm? Or the Internet of Things? Well, hold on to your VR googles because the metaverse is coming! Mark says so.

Facebook wants us to live in the metaverseThe New Yorker
In a Facebook earnings call last week, Mark Zuckerberg outlined the future of his company. The vision he put forth wasn’t based on advertising, which provides the bulk of Facebook’s current profits, or on an increase in the over-all size of the social network, which already has nearly three billion monthly active users. Instead, Zuckerberg said that his goal is for Facebook to help build the “metaverse,” a Silicon Valley buzzword that has become an obsession for anyone trying to predict, and thus profit from, the next decade of technology.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn Facebook into a ‘metaverse company’ – what does that mean?The Conversation
In his quest to turn Facebook into a metaverse company, Zuckerberg is seeking to build a system where people move between virtual reality (VR), AR and even 2D devices, using realistic avatars of themselves where appropriate. Here they will work, socialise, share things and have other experiences, while still probably using the internet for some tasks such as searches which are similar to how we use it now. Owning not only the Facebook platform but also WhatsApp, Instagram and VR headset maker Oculus gives Zuckerberg a big head start in making this a reality.

Here’s how the man himself describes it, in an interview with The Verge.

Mark in the metaverse: Facebook’s CEO on why the social network is becoming ‘a metaverse company’The Verge
The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet. And it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build, but I think a big part of our next chapter is going to hopefully be contributing to building that, in partnership with a lot of other companies and creators and developers. But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.

For context, it would be helpful to read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One from 2011, recently made into a movie of the same name. Exciting, dynamic sci-fi thrillers, but not futures that I’d like as my present.

The metaverse has always been a dystopian ideaVICE
If it is coming, and if it is a big deal, then surprisingly few have paused to carefully consider the actual source of the metaverse, an undertaking which seems like a good idea, especially because that source is a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises. […]

Both books’ metaverses get at a common truism: there is something inherently dystopian in a future where humans abandon the real world in favor of an escapist and consumerist-oriented fully immersive digital one. To want to spend any serious amount of time in a metaverse, it must be made more appealing than reality, a feat which can be accomplished in one of two ways—either the world outside is already shitty enough to drive you into a glitch-prone, murder-filled alternative, or the fantasy of becoming someone else is compelling enough to consume you totally.

Is this all hype at the moment? Is there any real substance to these aspirations?

But as usual with such amorphous concepts and platform aspirations, there’s very little there. None of these luminaries, from Zuck to Nadella to Boz, seem capable of painting a coherent vision for what their particular metaverse will look or feel like, beyond gesturing at “presence” and a collection of apps, keywords, and old science fiction tropes. It is an odd vision built from a compendium of juvenile fantasies, perceived market opportunities, and overt dystopias.

Well, the author of that article might think so, but that’s not a view shared by venture capitalist Matthew Ball. He first wrote about the beginnings of the metaverse in 2018 …

Fortnite is the future, but probably not for the reasons you thinkMatthewBall.vc
The impending possibility (and broader inevitability) of the Metaverse is separate from whether Epic can, should or will pursue it. But it’s clear that Sweeney wants to build an open Metaverse before someone else builds a closed one. Many are trying.

… updated that in January 2020 …

The Metaverse: What it is, where to find it, who will build it, and FortniteMatthewBall.vc
This is why considering Fortnite as video game or interactive experience is to think too small and too immediately. Fortnite began as a game, but it quickly evolved into a social square. Its players aren’t logging in to “play”, per se, but to be with their virtual and real-world friends. Teenagers in the 1970s to 2010s would come home and spend three hours talking on the phone. Now they talk to their friends on Fortnite, but not about Fortnite. Instead, they talk about school, movies, sports, news, boys, girls and more. After all, Fortnite doesn’t have a story or IP – the plot is what happens on it and who is there.

… and then again in June 2021, with this extensive, nine-part essay, ‘The Metaverse Primer’.

A framework for the metaverseMatthewBall.vc
Since [the 2020 update], a lot has happened. COVID-19 forced hundreds of millions into Zoomschool and remote work. Roblox became one of the most popular entertainment experiences in history. Google Trends’ index on the phrase “The Metaverse” set a new “100” in March 2021. Against this baseline, use of the term never exceeded seven from January 2005 through to December 2020. With that in mind, I thought it was time to do an update – one that reflects how my thinking has changed over the past 18 months and addresses the questions I’ve received during this time, such as “Is the Metaverse here?”, “When will it arrive?”, and “What does it need to grow?”.

In this collection of essays, he dives into eight core categories; hardware, networking, computing power, virtual platforms, standards, payments, content and services, and user behaviour.

Each of these buckets is critical to the development of the Metaverse. In many cases, we have a good sense of how each one needs to develop, or at least where there’s a critical threshold (say, VR resolution and frame rates, or network latency). But recent history warns us not to be dogmatic about any specific path to, or idealized vision of, a fully functioning Metaverse. The internet was once envisioned as the ‘Information Superhighway’ and ‘World Wide Web’. Neither of these descriptions were particularly helpful in planning for 2010 or 2020, least of all in understanding how the world and almost every industry would be transformed by the internet.

Very extensive, and I can’t say I follow even half of it, but it all sounds very exciting. It’s nice to see Second Life getting a mention as a “proto-metaverse”, but I wish it was more involved.

Second Life 2021 review, documentary from inside the social metaverse – YouTube
Second Life is an open world 3D social virtual world, the precursor of the virtual reality or VR platforms we see today. But is it really on its way out of the Metaverse game as some believe? Or does it hold the keys to realizing the Metaverse as it is envisioned by many futurists and sci-fi authors? This short film seeks to answer those questions.

Hopefully this next social internet will result in a more positive future than the one envisaged in Keiichi Matsuda’s video, Hyper-reality, that I shared some time back.

Anyway, to round all this off, here are a couple of links from Dezeen on what real estate in this new digital universe might look like.

Artist Krista Kim sells “first NFT digital house in the world” for over $500,000Dezeen
Kim designed the home in 2020 to be a space that embodied her philosophy of meditative design and worked with an architect to render the house using Unreal Engine, software that is commonly used to create video games. She describes the house, which overlooks a moody mountain range and features an open-plan design and floor to ceiling glass walls, as a “light sculpture”.

Andrés Reisinger sells collection of “impossible” virtual furniture for $450,000 at auctionDezeen
Each of the virtual items can be placed in any shared 3D virtual space or “metaverse”, including open worlds such as Decentraland and Somnium Space and Minecraft. Alternatively, the 3D models can be used in virtual- and augmented-reality applications as well as development platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine to create games, animations and CGI movies.

Timescales, though. The web’s already 30 years old, how long do we have to wait for all this? And how will we stop it going sour again?

Not selling the web, ok?

Tim’s in the news again, in another ridiculous NTF story.

Tim Berners-Lee’s NFT of world wide web source code sold for $5.4mThe Guardian
The NFT sold on Wednesday was created by the English scientist Berners-Lee in 2021 and represents ownership of various digital items from when he invented the world wide web in 1989. The sale effectively comprises a blockchain-based record of ownership of files containing the original source code for the world wide web. The final price was $5,434,500 and half of the bidders were new to Sotheby’s.

A tidy sum.

Tim Berners-Lee defends auction of NFT representing web’s source codeThe Guardian
“This is totally aligned with the values of the web,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “The questions I’ve got, they said: ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the free and open web.’ Well, wait a minute, the web is just as free and just as open as it always was. The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty free, just as they always have been. I’m not selling the web – you won’t have to start paying money to follow links. “I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me.

That ‘not selling the source code’ doesn’t quite square with how this was being reported earlier, but whatever.

World Wide Web code that changed the world up for auction as NFTReuters
The original source code for the World Wide Web that was written by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee is up for sale at Sotheby’s as part of a non-fungible token, with bids starting at just $1,000. […] The digitally signed Ethereum blockchain non-fungible token (NFT), a one-of-a-kind digital asset which records ownership, includes the original source code, an animated visualization, a letter written by Berners-Lee and a digital poster of the full code from the original files.

Nothing lasts forever #2

After 25 years, the original Space Jam website has been replacedEsquire Middle East
The original website, launched in 1996, became a viral phenomenon in the early 2010s, as an internet that had evolved far past the 56k dial up modem found the site completely untouched from what it had once been. In an online world in which it often seems nothing is preserved, visiting the website felt genuinely like discovering the Tomb of Tutankhamun.

Web designer Max Böck compares the resources and loading times of the two versions. Progress?

Space JamMax Böck
Although connection speeds and devices keep getting better and better, the web is actually getting slower. We see the increasing bandwidth as an invitation to use more and more stuff in our websites. More images, more videos, more JavaScript. We just keep filling the available space, jamming up the pipes in the process so nothing actually gets faster. Well, at least the dial-up sound is gone now.

Here’s something from the Web Design Museum for those in the mood for more movie reminiscences.

Flash websites of Hollywood moviesYouTube Playlist
Via B3TA – “The Web Design museum are collecting flash intros to film websites, should you want to remember what the Memento site looked like in order to tattoo it on your leg so you never forget again.”

And yet, he’s still here

Well, they voted. And counted. And waited.

Amid post-election anxiety, the internet copes with memesHyperallergic
An entire genre of internet memes emerged in the past few days to parody the unbearable slowness of Nevada’s vote count. Final results in the Silver State might not be announced until Saturday or Sunday, according to election officials. Without offending the dedicated poll workers and volunteers who are counting the votes in Nevada, the memes flooding the internet are fair in their assessment that the state is taking its sweet time to announce its election results.

And waited.

Nation never wants to see color red or blue ever againThe Onion
Exhausted after 48 hours of following cable news coverage and continually refreshing their web browsers, Americans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia told reporters Thursday they do not want to see the color red or the color blue in any context or for any reason ever again.

And eventually —

Joe Biden captures the White HouseThe Economist
The Republican president falsely claims to have won the election, says it is rigged and has filed multiple lawsuits to try to disrupt the vote-count. But however he may rage he is only the fourth president in a century to have failed to win re-election. He is also the first president since Benjamin Harrison, in 1892, to have lost the popular vote twice. That underlines not only Mr Trump’s unpopularity but also the advantages his party draws from America’s electoral system.

At the moment Biden has 77,083,979 votes to Trump’s 72,159,215. You would think, given the last four years, that it would have been a landslide.

Lest we forget the horrors: A catalog of Trump’s worst cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes: The complete listing (so far): Atrocities 1- 967McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
Early in President Trump’s term, McSweeney’s editors began to catalog the head-spinning number of misdeeds coming from his administration. We called this list a collection of Trump’s cruelties, collusions, and crimes, and it felt urgent then to track them, to ensure these horrors — happening almost daily — would not be forgotten.

But I wonder how many of those 967 (!) misdeeds have simply been dismissed as fake news by his base.

What is the internet doing to boomers’ brains?HuffPost UK
It has become a familiar story: The older relative, the intensifying Fox News habit, the alarming Facebook posts, the inevitable detachment from reality. Losing a parent to the conservative cyber-swamp is such a common experience among millennials that it has produced an entire sub-genre of documentaries, books and online support groups. What it has not produced, however, is a satisfying answer to a simple question: What is the internet doing to our parents’ brains?

You can’t just blame Facebook or ‘the internet’ for this, though.

The misinformation media machine amplifying Trump’s election liesThe Guardian
Trump himself is the largest source of election misinformation; the president has barely addressed the public since Tuesday except to share lies and misinformation about the election. But his message attacking the electoral process is being amplified by a host of rightwing media outlets and pundits who appear to be jockeying to replace Fox News as the outlet of choice for Trumpists – and metastasizing on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

What a strange country. But should we have been surprised?

I guess I just expected a little more from this countryMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency
How can a nation capable of turning the simple act of revealing the gender of your child into a wildfire that burns down an entire state be so insistent on screwing things up? How could a country, one that birthed the timeless love story of 30 brown-haired white guys named Chad competing in an elimination contest for the chance to marry a woman, lack the emotional depth required to make the right decision for the future of all of us? How could a people that had to be explicitly told not to eat Tide Pods be so short-sighted? Or are some things simply beyond explanation?

Trump’s not taking this loss well, to say the least.

Trump is attempting a coup in plain sightVox
The Trump administration’s current strategy is to go to court to try and get votes for Biden ruled illegitimate, and that strategy explicitly rests on Trump’s appointees honoring a debt the administration, at least, believes they owe. One of his legal advisers said, “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court — of which the President has nominated three justices — to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through.”

Trump won’t accept defeat. Ever.The Atlantic
The Trump family being what it is, expect the illegitimacy myth to be exploited for commercial purposes too. Paradoxically, Trump’s loss may well increase the loyalty of his most ardent fans, who will be angry that he has been unfairly deprived of his rightful role. They will now become loyal purchasers of flags, ties, MAGA hats, maybe even degrees at a revived Trump University. They could become the customer base for Trump TV, a media company that will set itself up as the rival to his brand-new enemies on Fox. Maybe they will buy tickets to rallies and other public events where he plays familiar old hits such as “Lock Her Up” and “Stop the Count.”

He’ll be kept busy, when eventually he does go.

6 lawsuits Donald Trump is going to have to deal with when he leaves officeCNN
Aside from those half-dozen suits is the question of whether Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice for his attempts to impede and inhibit the investigation into the 2016 election and Russia’s role in it by special counsel Robert Mueller. In a back-and-forth during congressional testimony in July 2019, Mueller, a former FBI director, suggested that he believed Trump could be charged once he left office.

But will that really be the end of him?

Trump, who never admits defeat, mulls how to keep up fightAP News
Would Trump ever concede? “I doubt it,” said Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, whose prison sentence was commuted by Trump in July. Stone asserted that Biden, as a result, will have “a cloud over his presidency with half the people in the country believing that he was illegitimately elected.” Allies suggested that if Trump wants to launch a media empire in coming years, he has an incentive to prolong the drama. So, too, if he intends to keep the door open to a possible 2024 comeback — he would be only a year older than Biden is now.

What a horrid thought.

Update 26/11/2020

What if Trump won’t leave the White House? A hostage negotiator, an animal-control officer, and a toddler whisperer have adviceThe Boston Globe
Give him a five-minute warning, use food as a lure, remind him he has something to live for.

Joanne McNeil knows what she’s talking about

7 books about cyberspace by women writersElectric Literature
Here are seven texts that capture the emotional charge and atmospheric qualities of the internet, especially in its early years. These authors express what it felt like to be present and part of the free-ranging internet populace that was cyberspace and is the internet now—sometimes—in its more secretive corners.

Listening to the world sing

Via the occasionally very interesting Recomendo, something that has renewed my faith in the web and shown us a glimpse of what the internet should have been.

Radio Garden
Radio Garden is a website that presents you with a spinnable globe of the Earth. The green dots represent radio stations. Rotate the globe, click a dot and you are suddenly listening to live radio in that part of the world.

listening-to-the-world-sing

Radio Garden invites you to tune into thousands of live radio stations across the globe. By bringing distant voices close, radio connects people and places. From its very beginning, radio signals have crossed borders. Radio makers and listeners have imagined both connecting with distant cultures, as well as re-connecting with people from ‘home’ from thousands of miles away.

This is such fun, just what we need about now. How about Nerds 4 God Radio, Orlando, Florida? ZM Online FM, Auckland, New Zealand? Radio Menhunt FM, Karanganyar, Indonesia? There’s just so much out there.

Google’s dark patterns

Google’s being sneaky again. Last year I shared an article about research into ‘dark patterns’, sneaky user interface tricks that shopping websites use to catch us out. It seems the search advertising giant is getting in on the act now.

Google’s ads just look like search results nowThe Verge
Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for its search results on desktop, which blurs the line between organic search results and the ads that sit above them. In what appears to be something of a purposeful dark pattern, the only thing differentiating ads and search results is a small black-and-white “Ad” icon next to the former. It’s been formatted to resemble the new favicons that now appear next to the search results you care about. Early data collected by Digiday suggests that the changes may already be causing people to click on more ads.

Indeed, when I search for pet insurance, I can hardly see any real search results without scrolling down.

googles-being-sneaky-again

Google made a big change to search results that makes it harder to distinguish ads from regular results, and people are calling Google out for itBusiness Insider
This is not the first time Google has been accused of using manipulative design practices, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into clicking on ads.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Rolfe Winkler said the Federal Trade Commission sent letters in 2013 to Google and other search engines saying the distinction between ads and organic search results had become “less noticeable to consumers.” In the letters, the FTC told the companies to “make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising.”

I’d say those letters have been completely ignored, wouldn’t you?

Update 26/01/2020

A rethink.

Google backtracks on desktop search redesign blurring ads from organic resultsBoing Boing
Google’s recently announced new redesign of desktop search results would have made ads pretty much look exactly like search results. Google is now backtracking, listening to the criticism, and trying a different visual approach.

Google backtracks on search results designTechCrunch
The company acknowledged that its latest experiment might have gone too far in its latest statement and noted that it will “experiment further” on how it displays results.

Can we not have web 1.0 back?

I do miss the early web, sometimes. Amateurish, in a good way—spontaneous, care-free, lighthearted.

The early internet, explained by one weird Celine Dion fan siteThe Atlantic
Celine Dreams was a bit of a sensation. Toroptsov never lacked for dream submissions, and at the turn of the century—before the internet was a corporatized monoculture repeated across only a handful of giant web properties—a scrappy, DIY fan site could easily build an audience by climbing up search rankings and encouraging active participation. For years, Celine Dreams appeared in the first page of Google and Yahoo search results for Celine Dion—a distinction now reserved for Celine Dion’s official website, Celine Dion’s Wikipedia page, Celine Dion’s Twitter page, Celine Dion on Spotify, and Celine Dion on YouTube.

And then it shut down, blinkering out at the same time as thousands of other fan sites. The whole ecosystem slid into the digital ocean slowly, but pretty much all at once, like a famous ship.

Nothing lasts forever. Especially nowadays.

More of these fan sites disappear all the time, and the Wayback Machine isn’t able to keep even a near-perfect record. Toroptsov’s project, and the work of his “competitors,” are vanishing in what information scientists have long been referring to as the “digital dark age.” “However widely the myth of the automatically archival Internet has spread over the past 70 years, the fact is that the system of networked computing utterly fails as a memory machine,” the UC Berkeley media researcher Abigail De Kosnik writes in her 2016 book, Rogue Archives. “The internet and computers do not constitute the greatest archive in human history, but rather the reverse.”

This applies to iconic software, too.

The last vestige of Internet Explorer dies todayGizmodo
When Microsoft decided to use EdgeHTML, it made sense. Internet Explorer had once been the biggest web browser around and consequently, lots of web page designers focused their energies on making their sites work for IE. But Chrome had a foothold when Edge launched and Microsoft’s new browser just never gained the popularity it needed. Instead, more and more web page designers focused on making the best looking sites the could—for Chrome.

Chrome uses the Blink engine and the source code originates with the open-source Chromium project. The Edge that launches today will rely on Blink and Chromium too.

Some people are clinging on, though. I’ve been reading Joanne McNeils’s newsletter for a while, now, and her website is joyously web 1.0.

joannemcneil.com
Hi, my name is Joanne McNeil and this is my Home Page on the World Wide Web. My book Lurking is out on February 25, 2020 with MCD.

underconstruction

And do you remember Noah Everyday from the 2000s? He’s back again, and doesn’t look a day older. Ok, that’s a lie. He looks older, we all do.

Man takes picture of himself every day for 20 yearsFlowingData
In 2007, Noah Kalina posted a time-lapse video showing a picture of himself every day for six years. Pop culture swallowed it up. There was even a Simpsons parody with Homer. After another six years, it was a video for twelve years’ worth of photos. Kalina has kept his everyday project going, and the above is the new time-lapse for two decades.

Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 20 yearsYouTube

Google Chrome’s hidden treats

I wasn’t expecting much from this article, to be honest, with its click-baity headline—just filler about keyboard shortcuts and pinned tabs. But I was pleasantly surprised by how useful this  create-your-own-search-engine tip was.

How to use Google Chrome like a proWired UK
With a few tweaks you can also search your email or Google Drive directly from the search bar. To do this you have to create a new search engine in Chrome – it’s not as complex as it sounds. Right click in the Omnibox and select ‘edit search engines’. Scroll to ‘other search engines’ and click on add. Here you enter the name of the website you want to search, a keyword that you’ll type into Chrome’s Omnibox, and a URL. The URL should be the search result page of the service you’re setting the system up for.

I’ve just set up search engines for my gmail, calendar, onedrive and blog. Being able to quickly jump into those things directly from the search bar is quite addictive.

Here’s something else that intrigued me, though I’m not sure how much I’ll use it.

You can even use a blank tab as a one-off note taker – enter “data:text/html, <html contenteditable>” and you’ll get a quick notepad. The files won’t save, but it’s useful if you want to jot something down quickly.

A non-binding contract?

Last year, Tim Berners-Lee launched his Contract for the Web, setting out what he hopes will be our rights and freedoms on the internet. It wasn’t received entirely positively at the time, but Tim’s persisting.

Contract for the Web
Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. The Contract for the Web was created by representatives from over 80 organizations, representing governments, companies and civil society, and sets out commitments to guide digital policy agendas. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.

We can all get involved — governments, corporations, individuals.

Contract for the Web: Tim Berners-Lee calls on world governments (and us all) to make the web a force for goodBoingBoing
Governments that sign on are asked to promise to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet,” to “keep all the internet available all the time,” and to “respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.”

Corporate signatories promise that they will “make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone,” “respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust,” and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.”

Individuals are asked to “be creators and collaborators on the Web,” “build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity,” and “fight for the Web.”

It’s the digital equivalent of the climate crisis.

Tim Berners-Lee unveils global plan to save the webThe Guardian
“I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater,” Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, told the Guardian. “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”

But, as before, doubts remain.

Tim Berners-Lee: web inventor’s plan to save the internet is admirable, but doomed to failThe Conversation
But the fact that Google and Facebook back the contract raises some questions. Do they really want to help reform the web to curb their worst behaviour or will manipulation continue to be the cost of access?

The algorithms of Google, Facebook and Twitter determine what people see online, whether that is adverts or political content. The contract does nothing to resolve this huge imbalance in influence and power. Many of us feel like we have no choice but to use their services, and they often use openness – such as free email and free apps like Google Maps – as a way of furthering their control over everything people do online.

Google makes money from people using free services, mostly by hoovering up our data to fuel targeted ads, and its business model isn’t likely to change overnight. For internet reform to succeed, it would need international collaboration between governments for effective regulation, along with pressure from users.

Sounds unlikely, to be honest. Unfortunately.

Update 05/12/2019

I’ve just come across this article that I thought fits well here, trying to imagine an internet that serves the public interest. It seems such a quaint idea, but one with a solid history behind, thanks in part to radio and the BBC.

Building a more honest internetColumbia Journalism Review
Of the world’s top hundred websites, Wikipedia is the sole noncommercial site. If the contemporary internet is a city, Wikipedia is the lone public park; all the rest of our public spaces are shopping malls—open to the general public, but subject to the rules and logic of commerce.

We have rights, but who pays?

Two more think pieces on Labour’s plans to provide free broadband to everyone in the UK, if elected.

Free broadband: internet access is now a human right, no matter who pays the billsThe Conversation
Before the internet, most people in democracies had roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights. They could vote, write to newspapers or their political representative, attend public meetings and join organisations.

But when some people gained internet access, their opportunities to exercise political rights became much greater compared to those without the internet. They could publish their views online for potentially millions of people to see, join forces with other people without having to physically attend regular meetings, and obtain a wealth of previously inaccessible political information.

Today, a large proportion of our political debates take place online, so in some ways our political rights can only be exercised via the internet. This means internet access is required for people to have roughly equal opportunities to make use of their political freedoms, and why we should recognise internet access as a human right.

Economics of Labour’s plan to nationalise broadband – £20 billion cost is unrealisticThe Conversation
While there is no nationalised and free full-fibre scheme to compare Labour’s proposal to, Australia carried out a government-funded broadband rollout scheme that is widely viewed as a relative failure. This policy was not identical – it was not for full-fibre connections – but costs of the programme spiralled and it became a political football.

Expanding access to super-fast broadband is clearly an important policy goal and rural communities would likely be the biggest beneficiaries, as market forces are unlikely to provide this in the short or medium term. But Labour appears to significantly underestimate the costs, while possibly overestimating the savings.

Ultimately, the question to ask is whether guaranteed full-fibre connections in every home is justifiable if the programme started to run several times over budget, as seems likely. There would be a very real risk of non-delivery if the project keeps going over budget. Then, a lack of private sector provision would leave little alternative for consumers to turn to.

Mixing yesterday’s politics with tomorrow’s technology

I must admit I was as incredulous as everybody else when this was announced. Any talk of nationalisation makes me cringe.

Full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Labour’s British Broadband announcementThe Labour Party
A Labour government will make broadband free for everybody. And not just any broadband, but the very fastest. Full-fibre broadband to every home, in every part of our country, for free – as a universal public service.

And once it’s up and running, instead of you forking out for your monthly bill, we’ll tax the giant corporations fairly – the Facebooks and the Googles – to cover the running costs.

But perhaps I’m being too hasty to dismiss this?

The Conservative’s own research shows why Labour’s broadband plan makes perfect senseWired UK
Research commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last year argued that current major providers are competing for a slice of just 75 per cent of the UK broadband market – and largely ignoring rural areas that they consider unprofitable. …

Openreach was even identified as the best (and only) contender for the job, and advised against “competitive tendering”. In a similar way to Australia and Singapore, this model could deliver coverage at a lower cost than a model that relies more heavily on the private sector, analysts argued.

We’ll have to wait and see. It could all be academic anyway, come 12 December.

None for me, thanks

Are you annoyed as I am when adverts for things I may or may not be interested in creepily follow you around the entire web, from one website to another? Maybe you aren’t, it’s not an issue for a lot of people. But for some it is, and Firefox is here to help.

The latest version of Firefox shows the wild scale of web tracking
It’s a big issue. According to cookie tracker tool Web Cookies, there are an average of 12.5 third-party cookies on every site, with a monstrous 412 cookies found on one shady site. Mozilla’s own estimates say there are roughly 170 third-party trackers following each user around the web every single day.

With Firefox 70, Mozilla continues with the universal blocking of all third-party cookies and web trackers for all users, which it introduced with Firefox 69, but it has also added the ability for users to see exactly which trackers are attempting to track them, as well as how many have been blocked.

This is a step in the right direction. I guess it’s a matter of choice, but people need to be aware of the scale of this issue first.

“We’re making it so that people don’t have the opportunity to create a profile of you online that they can use to serve you ads or political information,” says Celeste Kinswood, senior product marketing manager at Mozilla. “The volume of the tracker epidemic is super high, and people don’t know.”

So, farewell then, CEEFAX

Teletext was slow but it paved the way for the super-fast world of the internet
The BBC has announced that 2020 will mark the end of the Red Button text service – the final incarnation of what was originally known as CEEFAX and Oracle. Those old text-based TV services would seem ridiculously clunky and old-fashioned to an internet generation used to instant streaming and apps for everything. But – as slow and frustrating as that old text system was – it paved the way for the World Wide Web and helped prepare us for the world of social media.

A kind of internet but without social media — what could be better? It wasn’t quick though, was it?

When you fetch a web page, your browser sends a request to the server and the server sends the requested data back to you. CEEFAX, on the other hand, sent each page in turn, on a sort of endless loop. So you would put in the page number you wanted to see using your remote control, but it could take some time before that page came around again. It was a bit like waiting for your favourite sushi dish at one of those Japanese restaurants which use a conveyor belt to deliver the food, or your suitcase at an airport baggage claim.

Those were the days.

xkcd hackd

I’ve been a fan of the web comic xkcd for a while, so it was sad to read of their recent security troubles.

Hackers breach forum of popular webcomic ‘XKCD’
“The xkcd forums are currently offline. We’ve been alerted that portions of the PHPBB user table from our forums showed up in a leaked data collection. The data includes usernames, email addresses, salted, hashed passwords, and in some cases an IP address from the time of registration,” the forum administrators wrote.

It does give us the opportunity to share one of their comic strips again, though.

xkcd-hackd

Security advice

See also: password strengthsecurity question, morning news, right click, and of course the big hitters Earth temperature timeline and time.

The future of the 90s

Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then, right?

Do you remember Suck.com, the web’s first and best snarky internet/pop-culture magazine? It owned the show in the 90s, and I was a huge fan. It stopped publishing in 2001, but for the last four years the “Suck, Again” project has been serialising its archives as a daily email newsletter, each article sent out twenty years to the day since the original.

Gen Xers rejoice: Suck.com comes back as a daily newsletter
Launched in 1995 by Wired staffers Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman — the same year as Salon.com and a year before Slate — Suck offered a daily riff on early Web culture, politics, pop culture and dating. It was done with a characteristically Gen X flare: arch, wry, ironic and smart. It was massively influential.

It’s fascinating to see just how deeply the internet and the other new technologies have become embedded into our societies since then — and just how ‘on the money’ the Suck.com team were in highlighting the issues that we’re still grappling with today, two decades later.

Like this from April 1999 — fifteen years before Alexa first appeared, for example.

Bit Rot
In the December 1998 Wired, Negroponte – director of MIT’s Media Lab and sharp-dressed retailer of broader-bandwidth tomorrows to corporate America (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his best-selling book Being Digital) – announced that he was vacating his bully pulpit on the magazine’s end page. After six years there, the man, whose audio-animatronic prose is to literary style what the Parkinsonian tics of Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln are to fluid human movement, had decided to step down.

Negroponte’s departure marks the end of an era when Magna Cartas for the Knowledge Age and Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace were taken seriously, at least by the self- anointed “digital elite.” Oddly, Negroponte himself seems not to have noticed how retro his Jetsonian visions of digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks seem in the politically turbulent, economically anxious late-’90s. At the end of a century that has witnessed acid rain and global warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl, he beckons us toward a future where technology never fails, corporations are always benign, and there’s a high-tech magic bullet for every social malady.

Here’s a more favourable piece on him for 21C magazine.

Net prophet
In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, Being Digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight, but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant?

For all that I might now think that Nicholas Negroponte was a little wide of the mark politically, I’ve had his Being Digital book on my bookshelf since it was first published in 1995, just next to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. They’re still two of my favourites. 

(Featured image c/o Phil Gyford on Flickr)

Struggling with GDPR, or just ignoring it?

It’s been over a year now, but are we all still feeling our way with GDPR?

PwC’s data practices rejected in GDPR rebuke
With enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) still in its infancy, companies may be floating trial balloons to see which arguments resonate with authorities. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently tested the air currents in Greece, but was shot down by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority in a case involving the processing of employee data.

PwC will have to work to rebuild trust after shock GDPR fine
The Greek representative of PwC is the first of the “Big 4” to be fined under the GDPR. Moreover, it’s the first consultancy that has actually helped many of its clients with GDPR compliance over the last year. It seems astounding that a company of PwC’s size and reputation that’s making a lot of money on giving advice on the GDPR has been burned by the very fire they help clients to avoid on a daily basis.

Or perhaps we’re just ignoring it completely. Research just out has shown what we already know to be the case — most of those cookie notices everywhere aren’t following the EU privacy-first GDPR regulations. At all.

Most EU cookie ‘consent’ notices are meaningless or manipulative, study finds
Their industry snapshot of cookie consent notices found that the majority are placed at the bottom of the screen (58%); not blocking the interaction with the website (93%); and offering no options other than a confirmation button that does not do anything (86%). So no choice at all then.

A majority also try to nudge users towards consenting (57%) — such as by using ‘dark pattern’ techniques like using a color to highlight the ‘agree’ button (which if clicked accepts privacy-unfriendly defaults) vs displaying a much less visible link to ‘more options’ so that pro-privacy choices are buried off screen.

And while they found that nearly all cookie notices (92%) contained a link to the site’s privacy policy, only a third (39%) mention the specific purpose of the data collection or who can access the data (21%) …

This is an important finding because GDPR is unambiguous in stating that if an Internet service is relying on consent as a legal basis to process visitors’ personal data it must obtain consent before processing data (so before a tracking cookie is dropped) — and that consent must be specific, informed and freely given.

Yet, as the study confirms, it really doesn’t take much clicking around the regional Internet to find a gaslighting cookie notice that pops up with a mocking message saying by using this website you’re consenting to your data being processed how the site sees fit — with just a single ‘Ok’ button to affirm your lack of say in the matter.

In the way that those US academics highlighted the dark patterns used with shopping sites, there needs to be a way of reporting and highlighting these non-compliant cookie notices, or they’ll just get away with it.

Don’t give up on social media just yet

Most of the social media articles I share here are quite negative. I think it’s got a lot to answer for, in making us less social. But perhaps there are some pockets of positivity out there, as this Scientific American blog post explains.

The technology of kindness
People’s ability to connect is the glue that holds our culture together. By thinning out our interactions and splintering our media landscape, the Internet has taken away the common ground we need to understand one another. Each of us is becoming more confident about our own world just as it drifts farther from the worlds of others …

Diagnosing technology’s damaging effects is the first step toward reversing them. Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to encourage developers and investors to build “regenerative,” rather than extractive, online platforms. The idea is that our capacity for empathy runs just as deep as our vanity, outrage or fear, and technology should highlight healthier forces.

Rather than thinking that Twitter and Facebook are the only options, we’re introduced to ChangeAView, RareConnect, Koko and 7 Cups.

Sites such as ChangeAView and 7 Cups can appear like oases of connection in a landscape bereft of it—exceptions that prove the rule. But what sets connected platforms apart is their break from common, antisocial online practices. They allow people to be vulnerable and visible to one another and reward them for listening rather than shouting. Other social media companies could follow suit: by reforming their incentive structures such that open-minded, positive posts rise more quickly or by facilitating longer, richer communication between users. But they must make progress on this mission intentionally and soon.

Perhaps there’s hope for them (and us) yet.