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Cloud Computing, Legal Issues, and some other stuff

I absolutely forgot to mention it previously because I’ve spent way too much time bouncing around Europe recently to get anything sensible onto paper (or Internets). Anyway, a paper I wrote with my friend and colleague Primavera de Filippi, “Cloud Computing: Legal Issues in Centralized Architectures”, was published in the proceedings of IDP2011 (Internet, Law and Politics conference), which I attended on our behalf in Barcelona a couple of weeks ago.

The paper more or less focuses on a narrow aspect of what was discussed in a broader way in the slides I posted in the last post, namely the tendency towards centralization. It does it through analyzing centralization tendencies in social networking sites, and focuses quite heavily on privacy issues related to cloud computing.

To be honest, it could be written differently and organized better. We have a better version that’s coming out soon, but it’s also rather longer.

All of this is part of a bigger project that will be announced in due time. The slides from the last post give certain hints at an analytical model…

Anyway, the IDP conference was interesting. In some ways the discussions were great, but in other ways I was incredibly annoyed. It was remarkable how many people were discussing rather complicated aspects of Internet, telecoms and free speech regulation without any understanding of the technology in question whatsoever. On multiple occasions I heard people make alarmingly incorrect statements, depressingly inaccurate analogies, and unfortunately a scary amount of ignorance was espoused over the two days.

I don’t mean to be negative – there were a lot of fantastic people at the conference some valuable insights were presented and I had a good time. I really enjoyed the talks given by Anne Salisbury and Monica Horten, for example, and Mayo Fuster, Daniel Guagnin and Carla Ilten were fantastic… but on the other hand, when you have a large group of supposedly well educated people sitting around talking about this kind of issue, and somebody comes along and talks about how important it is to adopt registration of users of computers in order to prevent anonymity, as it is such a threat to morality, it makes you want to cry.

Then somebody starts talking about the legal status of “Web 2.0″… sigh. To quote from the paper: “Web 2.0 platform is considered to be a kind of “host”.” … It’s a completely vacuous distinction. The legal status of “Web 2.0″ is the same as the legal status of the Internet. The argument made in the paper is actually not all that bad (discussing the nuances of how “hosts” are defined in terms of the e-Commerce directive and how certain content providers may declassify themselves as such due to too much interference with the content), but from a technical standpoint that paper, and various others, just hurt.

This entire thing got me thinking a bit. It’s through no fault of their own that lawyers and sociologists don’t understand how the Internet works. Picking up a network sniffer and spending some hours staring at traffic isn’t for the timid, and even then you’d need to read dozens of RFCs, IEEE standards and ISOs to have even the faintest clue what’s going on. There are thankfully a lot of pretty decent books that distill all of this into comfortable chunks, but these chunks are still hinged on a modicum of technical knowledge that does take a long time to build up.

In Porto, where I was teaching at the Gary Chapman International School of Digital Transformation last week, I tried to remedy this by organizing an affinity session about How The Internet (Really) Works. In it I led people though the OSI model and the Shannon-Wheeler model as entry points, then traversed through the TCP/IP networking suite, stopping by BGP long enough to explain how the Egyptian censorship worked, up to HTTP, and concluded with a brief diversion into cryptography and TLS/SSL handshakes and such. It was a good exercise, but needs more refinement.

But no amount of refinement of a discussion of how the Internet works will solve the problem that some people still very honestly think that surveillance and censorship will help. I haven’t yet been able to determine what particular kind of insanity leads people into this line of thinking, but I intend to try and put together a couple of prepackaged talks in coming months to address these issues. “Why Censorship Doesn’t Work”, “Why Data Retention is Dangerous and Useless” and “Why Surveillance Doesn’t Work”. Something like that. The aim is to try and put together such a comprehensive overview of why censorship is actually not going to protect family values and how Thinking Of The Children™ is actually putting them at risk, that what people who actually believe this nonsense will be left with is appeals to emotion. Those I can do virtually nothing about, but it’d be nice to bring the discussion on par with religion.