Personal History

Our lives today are more tracked, recorded and interconnected than ever before, for good and ill. Our phones can track our every moment, CCTV and other forms of physical recording have reduced our opportunities for privacy whilst out in public and, as the Leveson inquiry showed, modern technology makes it easier and easier for those who want to to keep tabs on all our activity. However, the aspect of this I want to discuss today concerns our online presence, something that is increasingly becoming a feature of all our lives.

On this blog, I try to be careful; I don’t mention my name, age or specific location and never put any photos of myself up. I also try, wherever possible, to be careful in other places online too; I don’t put photos on my Facebook page (since photos can be seen by anyone, regardless of whether they are your friend or not), try to keep a hold of my tongue when on forums, and try to operate a ‘look don’t touch’ policy in most other areas. But then again, I’m kinda lucky in that regard; I am not highly sociable, so rarely find myself in the position of having 100 embarrassing photos & videos put up concerning ‘that HILARIOUS thing you were doing last night’, and am not a public figure in any way. Basically, I am able to maintain a reasonable degree of privacy on the web by virtue of the fact that other people are unlikely to… contribute to my online profile.

Others are, of course, not so lucky; either that or they don’t especially care, which is, I suppose understandable. Sharing information about ourselves is, after all, pretty much exactly what Facebook and the like are for. However, we are frequently told how damaging it is to have such a wealth of information about us so blatantly available online; a quick Google and Facebook search of a client is now pretty much standard procedure when it comes to job applications, and even if there aren’t any pictures of you with underwear round the ankles vomiting into a fountain, they can build up a negative image of a potential client. An interviewer (well, a presumptive one) might, for instance, take a look at all the pictures showing you hanging round with mates at a club and think you are a habitual drinker and partygoer, neither of which exactly say ‘productive worker who’s always going to be in on time and in top condition’. Even beyond the world of work, there is the potential for serial embarrassment if pictures that were meant to be shared between friends make it out into the big wide world, and there is even the worrying idea of ‘cyber stalking’, made so easy thanks to the internet, entering your life.

However, perhaps most interesting are those in the public domain, both people and companies, who must control what totally uncontrollable, and usually unknown, people can choose to put online about them. Not only can this be personally hurtful for individual people, but for many such figures their livelihood is dependent on their reputation. All it takes is a spree of bad press reports for a negative image to tar one’s brand for a long old time, and all of the incalculable lost revenue that comes with that. The internet has a large memory and billions of people to contribute to it, and even a few particularly vociferous bloggers can keep bad words in the Google suggestion bar for a very long time.

This has lead, in the last few years, to the rise of a new industry; that of online reputation management. These companies have a simple enough remit; to disassociate their client from negative connotations online wherever possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t a matter of just shutting people up, because this is the internet and that kind of thing never ends well.  No, these businesses have to be a mite more subtle. For example, let us imagine, for the sake of implausibility, that Benedict Cumberbatch is linked with a rabbit-murdering syndicate, and although nothing is ever nailed down there are enough damning news bulletins and angry blogs that this thing is going to hang around forever. A reputation management company’s initial job would be to get this off the front page of Google, so they have to create some more content to hide the bad stuff; 94% of Google searches never get off page one. However, they can’t just produce huge numbers of spam-like articles to the vein of ‘Benedict’s a nice guy! Look, he’s cuddling a kitten! He gives money to nice charities!’, because people are smart enough to tell when that kind of thing is happening. So, a large amount of neutral or neutral-positive stuff is generated; certain sites might be paid, for example, to talk about the next film or theatre project it’s announced he’s appearing in. A variety of content is key, because if it’s all just carbon copies of the same statement people will smell a rat. Once the content’s been generated, there comes the matter of getting it circulated. Just writing a program to generate hits artificially isn’t enough on its own; this is where the world of sponsored Facebook links comes in, trying to get people thinking and talking about non-rabbit murdering stuff. This prevents more negative content from being generated and existing stuff from getting traffic much more effectively. The job is, however, an extremely slow one; a news story that breaks over the course of a week can take a year or two to fix, depending on the ferocity of one’s opponents.

When the world wide web, or ‘the information super-highway’, as it was also known back then, first came into our workld back in the 90s, people had high hopes. We could learn things, share things, discover stuff about one another, foster universal understanding. And, whilst we can now do all these things and more, the internet has become infamous too, scaring corporations and people alike with what billions of interconnected people can make happen. It is a strange place that many try to tame, out of necessity or out of fear. For many, it’s a battle they are doomed to lose.

PS: I feel like I should slightly apologise for not really having anything to say here. I guess I didn’t really think of a conclusion in advance

“Oh man, you gotta see this video…”

Everyone loves YouTube, or at least the numbers suggest so; the total number of siteviews they’ve racked up must number in the low trillions, the most popular video on the site (of course it’s still Gangnam Style) has over one billion views, and YouTube has indeed become so ubiquitous that if a video of something cannot be found there then it probably doesn’t exist.

Indeed, YouTube’s ubiquity is perhaps the most surprising, or at least interesting thing about it; YouTube is certainly not the only and wasn’t even the first large-scale video hosting site, being launched in 2005, a year after Vimeo (the only other such site I am familiar with) and well after several others had made efforts at video-sharing. It was the brainchild of three early employees of PayPal, Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim and Steve Chen. A commonly reported story (that is frequently claimed to be not true), the three had recorded video at a dinner party but were having difficulty sharing it online, so being reasonably gifted programmers decided to build the service themselves. What actually happened has never really been confirmed, but the first video (showing Karim at San Diego zoo; yes, perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious start) went up in April 2005, of course, is history.

To some, YouTube’s meteoric rise might be considered surprising, or simply the result of good fortune favouring them over some other site. Indeed, given that Apple computers used not to be able to display videos using the Adobe Flash video format used by the site, it’s remarkable (and a testament to Microsoft’s dominance of the PC market for so many years) that the site was able to take off as it did. However, if one looks closely then it isn’t hard to identify the hallmarks of a business model that was born to succeed online, and bears striking hallmarks to the story of Facebook; something that started purely as a cool idea for a website, and considered monetisation something of a secondary priority to be dealt with when it came along. The audience was the first priority, and everything was geared to maximising the ability of users to both share and view content freely. Videos didn’t (and still don’t) have to be passed or inspected before being uploaded to the site (although anything flagged by users as inappropriate will be watched and taken down if the moderators see fit to do so), there is no limit on the amount that can be watched or uploaded by a user and there is never any need to pay for anything. YouTube understands the most important thing about the internet; it is a place with an almost infinite supply of stuff and a finite amount of users willing to surf around and look for it. This makes the value of content to a user very low, so everything must be done to attract ‘customers’ before one can worry about such pesky things as money. YouTube is a place of non-regulation, of freedom; no wonder the internet loves it.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the money; even as early as November 2005 Sequoia Capital had enough faith in the company (along with superhuman levels of optimism and sheer balls) to invest over $11 million in the company. Less than a year later, YouTube was bought by Google, the past masters at knowing how the internet works- for $1.65 billion. Given that people estimate that Sequoia’s comparatively meagre investment in the company netted them a 30% share in the company by April 2006, this suggests the company’s value increased over 40 times in six months. That ballsy investment has proved a very, very profitable one, but some would argue that even this massive (and very quickly made) whack of cash hasn’t proved worth it in the long run. After all, less than two years after he was offered $500 000 for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s company was worth several billion and still rising (it’s currently valued at $11 billion, after that messy stock market flotation), and YouTube is now, if anything, even bigger.

It’s actually quite hard to visualise just how big a thing YouTube has now managed to be come, but I’ll try; every second, roughly one hour of footage is uploaded to the site, or to put it another way, you would have to watch continually for the next three and a half millennia just to get through the stuff published this year. Even watching just the ones involving cats would be a full-time job. I occasionally visit one channel with more than one and a half thousand videos published by just one guy, each of which is around 20 minutes long, and there are in the region of several thousand people across the world who are able to make a living through nothing more than sitting in front of a camera and showing their antics to the world.

Precisely because of this, the very concept of YouTube has not infrequently come under fire. In much the same way as social networking sites, the free and open nature of YouTube means everything is on show for the whole world to see, so that video you of your mate doing this hilarious thing while drunk one time could, at best, make him the butt of a few jokes among your mates or, at worst, subject him to large-scale public ridicule. For every TomSka, beloved by his followers and able to live off YouTube-related income, there is a Star Wars kid, who (after having the titular video put online without his permission) was forced to seek psychiatric help for the bullying and ridicule he became the victim of and launched a high-profile lawsuit against his antagonists. Like so many things, YouTube is neither beneficial nor detrimental to humanity as a whole on its own; it is merely a tool of our modern world, and to what degree of awesomeness or depravity we exploit it is down purely to us.

Sorry about that, wasn’t really a conclusion was it?

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.

Web vs. Money

Twice now, this blog has strayed onto the subject of legal bills attempting to in some way regulate the internet, based on the idea that it violates certain copyright restrictions, and everything suggests that SOPA, PIPA and ACTA will not be the last of such attempts (unless ACTA is so successful that it not only gets ratified, but also renders the internet functionally brain-dead). However, a while ago I caught myself wondering exactly why the internet gets targeted with these bills at all. There are two angles to take with regards to this problem; why there is any cause for the internet to be targeted with these bills, and why this particular problem has bills dedicated to it, rather than simply being left alone.

To begin with the second one of these- why the web? Copyright violation most definitely existed before the internet’s invention, and many a pirate business even nowadays may be run without even venturing online. All that’s required is a copy of whatever you’re pirating, some cheap software, and a lot of blank discs (or USB’s or hard drives or whatever). However, such operations tended to be necessarily small-scale in order to avoid detection, and because the market really isn’t large enough to sustain a larger-scale operation. It’s rather off-putting actually acquiring pirated stuff in real life, as it feels slightly wrong- on the web, however, it’s far easier and more relaxed. Thus, rather than a small, fairly meaningless operation, on the internet (which is, remember a throbbing network with literally billions of users) piracy is huge- exactly how big is hard to tell, but it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s bigger than a few blokes flogging ripped off DVD’s out of the boot of a car. This therefore presents a far more significant loss of potential earnings than the more traditional market, and is subsequently a bigger issue.

However, perhaps more important than the scale of the operation is that it’s actually a fairly easy one to target. Modern police will struggle to catch massive-scale drugs lords or crime barons, because the real world is one in which it’s very easy to hide, sneak, bury information and bribe. It can be impossible to find the spider at the centre of the web, and even if he can be found, harder still to pin anything on him. Online however is a different story- sites violating the law are easy to find for anyone with a web connection, and their IP address is basically put on display as a massive ‘LOOK HERE’ notice, making potential criminals easy to find and locate. The web is a collective entity, the virtual equivalent of a large and fairly open ghetto- it’s very easy to collectively target and wrap up the whole shabang. Put simply, dealing with the internet, if a bill were to get through, would be very, very easy

But… why the cause for dispute in the first place? It’s an interesting quandary, because the web doesn’t consider what it’s doing to be wrong anyway. This is partly because much of what a corporation might consider piracy online isn’t technically illegal- as long as nothing gets downloaded or made a hard copy of, streaming a video isn’t against the law. It’s the virtual equivalent of inviting your mates round to watch a film (although technically, since a lot of commercial DVD’s are ‘NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’, this is strictly speaking illegal too- not so online as there is no way to prove it’s not from a public performance copy). Downloading copyrighted content is illegal and is punishable by existing law, but this currently often goes unregulated because the problem is so widespread and the punishment for the crimes so small that it is simply too much bother for effective regulation. The only reason Napster got hit so hard when it was offering free downloads is because it was shifting stuff by the millions, and because it was the only one out there. One of the great benefits that bills like SOPA offered to big corporations was a quick, easy solution to crack down on copyright violators, and which didn’t entail lengthy, costly and inconvenient court proceedings.

However, downloading is a far smaller ‘problem’ than people streaming stuff from Megavideo and YouTube, which happens on a gigantic scale- think how many views the last music video you saw on YouTube had. This is what corporations are attempting to stop- the mass distribution of their content via free sharing of it online, which to them represents a potentially huge loss in income. To what extent it does cost them money, and to what extent it actually gets them more publicity is somewhat up for debate, but in the minds of corporations its enough of a problem to try and force through SOPA and PIPA.

This, really is the nub of the matter- the web and the world of business have a different definition of what constitutes violation of copyrighted content. To the internet, all the streaming and similar is simply sharing, and this is a reflection of the internet’s overarching philosophy- that everything should be free and open to everyone, without corporate influence (a principle which is astoundingly not adhered to when one thinks of the level of control exerted by Facebook and Google, but that’s another story in itself). To a corporation however, streaming on the huge scale of the web is stealing- simple as that. And it is this difference of opinion that has led to such controversy surrounding web-controlling bills.

If the next bill proposed to combat online piracy were simply one that increased the powers corporations could take the prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted content, I don’t think anyone could really complain- it’s already definitely illegal, those doing it know that they really shouldn’t and if anyone wants to grumble then they can probably stream it anyway. The contentious part of all the bills thus far have been those which attempt to restrict the streaming and sharing of such content online- and this is one battle that is not going to go away. At the moment, the law is on the side of the web. Whether that will stay the case remains to be seen…

Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.