Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Fluency Milestone #3: searching & finding

This is a question I posted on the bullitin board, but I'm writing it here as well, in the context of a "Fluency Milestone," since it relates so closely to Snyder's chapter about searching & finding.
In the October 17, 2005, New Yorker, there's an article about a map thief. His name is Forbes Smiley III, and he's charged with stealing three maps from the rare book collection at Yale. He could also be charged in federal court with a fourth theft, but at the time the article was written, that hadn't happened.
Smiley knows maps. He knows exactly what he's looking for and where the maps can be found: usually in very old books. Often, the owners of the books don't know that a map on one page of the book could be worth more than the book together. The article mentions one rare book dealer who sold a book to Smiley, then learned that before buying it, Smiley had already agreed to sell three maps out of the book--for many times the value of the book. The seller was heart-sick to realize that his rare and precious book had been cut apart for the value of its individual pages.
Smiley was allegedly able to commit these crimes over the course of years, for one simple reason: people don't really know what's inside a book. He knew that a book in the "history of tobacco" collection at the New York Public Library would have a priceless map of Virginia, but did the collection's librarians?
In class, we heard from an expert at searching for documents about FUTON bias, or "FUll Text On Net," where researchers only use documents they can find online. The fact is that not every piece of information is available on the Internet, yet, and for the information that is available offline, we still can't find what it is.
The problem is that most ways of searching for books in a library only tell you what's on the outside of the book. You can find the title, the author, the subject... maybe a quick synopsis. But what about the mention on the inside of your great-great-grandfather being listed on a casualty report from the Second Battle of Bull Run? How would I ever be able to find out that he is listed in this book? If he was listed in a table, that might be part of the index, but what if he was mentioned in passing in the prose? That might not be indexed.
Enter Google Print... an experiment to index the world's printed knowledge. If you search this site for your ancestor's name, Google will give you a list of books with his name in it. You can see a page of the book-- or maybe just a couple sentences-- around the keyword you wanted. If you want to buy the book online, there are links (which nets Google a tidy profit) and also links to library systems to put the book on reserve.
If Google Print lives up to this promise, it's going to totally change the way we find printed information. I belive it's going to be a boon to publishers and writers (who will have to set aside their paranoia about copyright infringement in favor of the tremendous marketing advantage-- unlike their musician collegues) as well as for libraries. With new ways of search the insides of books, libraries will be more important than ever. Many more people will realize what's in the books in libraries and will go there to get at it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Nugget: The Broadband Divide

Sorry to immediately top my big essay with a "digital governance nugget," but I'd like to direct everyone to this article from Salon about broadband. They ask: why is it that Americans pay through the nose for crappy 1.5meg connections and call it "broadband" while the rest of the developed world is screaming along at 30megs? Salon's answer is: Bush Administration telecom policy, which is something I belive Dr. Shulman mentioned in our 2nd meeting.

Fair warning, Salon is not one of those freebee websites... I'm a subscriber because I believe in their independant journalism (and also in Tom Tomorrow cartoons) but you can read the article without paying by getting a free "day pass"... you just have to watch a streamed TV commercial... streamed at your paltry 500k connection, probably.

Here's the direct link to the story:



Global Governance and Electronic Democracy: Review & Comment

Dr. Oren Perez from Israel’s Tel Aviv University, in his paper Global Governance and Electronic Democracy, offers the striking argument that voting is undemocratic, and that the Internet offers the potential for more democratic ways for people to decide major issues. He gives one small suggestion of one way this might work. His plan is not very detailed, and could use more thought but it is worth discussing. His contention that voting is not a workable method for deciding issues would find few followers, I think, but it would be easier to see what he means if he could have given more examples.

Perez believes that voting—for many, the very definition of democracy—is undemocratic. Specifically, he says it is an incomplete form of democracy. He argues that voting is a uniform way to gather public opinion, but society is diverse. He says there are two different forms of diversity, or “social pluralism,” each being underserved by the representative democratic system. The first kind of diversity is at the societal level. Perez argues that people hold so many different views—so many of which could be seen as having equal validity—that there is little room to hold a collective conversation. Next, he says that every person has a unique “innate structure….” People react differently to situations. As an example, Perez quotes a psychologist who theorizes that people’s different level of a need for closure makes people react differently when presented with something like the Internet, or a voting booth.

Essentially, Perez is saying that people are so different from each other and use such different process to make decisions that it is unfair to give people only one option for deciding society’s issues.

That’s a tough idea to swallow. For example, this theory that the need for closure can confuse people when presented with the array of hyperlinks on a web page doesn’t give people very much credit for being able to adapt.

He says there is a tension between equality and autonomy: the need to recognize other people as being different is incompatible with the notion of equality, where everyone is given the same chance to express themselves. To Perez’ thinking, equality needs to give ground.

Perez gives an example of a country where some people can only vote if the booths are green, and others if the booths are white. If the two populations are of equal size, the country will arrange—at great expense—to hold the election on separate days or else in separate voting locations. Therefore, he argues, people should be given many different opportunities to deliberate besides the usual single election day and uniform (at least, county-by-county) ballots.

Unfortunately, Perez only gives one real example of how this might work in the real world: a website set up by politicos Dick Morris and Eileen McGann called vote.com. As described by Perez, the site is something of a Habermasian Utopia, where issues are presented, outlined by concise and balanced journalism, debated in a moderated chat room and then voted upon by the users.

My own trip to vote.com was a little less thrilling. “Iraq Votes On A Draft Constitution: Do You Think Iraq Will Become A Stable Democracy?” was the question presented. The two choices are “yes” or “no.” I checked for more information, hoping to find this well of deliberation underneath, but found only the most meager of reporting to frame the issue.

The vote on
Iraq’s draft constitution is a major step that will lead a stable democracy!
Despite the vote on a draft constitution,
Iraq will never become a stable democracy!

Certainly not nearly enough information for me to decide this complex issue involving religious violence, military power, self-determination, oil politics and the future of a great world power. Access to the discussion section requires registration with the site, and I was not impressed enough by their privacy policy to risk my already-spam-clogged e-mail address on the experiment. Morris and McGann promise to send the results of the vote to the appropriate national leaders (President George W. Bush would receive the Iraq vote results), but there is, of course, no guarantee that the leaders will pay attention to the results—unless they already agree with the results.

Perez gives some broader categories of examples of how the Internet might expand deliberative goals. The transparency made possible by the Internet can be meaningful by itself. The Internet could also expand “unidirectional communication” between citizens and the government, as when an agency solicits public comments via e-mail. However, Perez does not give any expanded examples of these ideas.

While the Internet may be able to expand the ways that people debate politics, or even decide issues, He does not give enough specifics to make his case here. I don’t think that people are as different as he does. In fact, I think the real problem with voting in the United States, as shown in 2000 and 2004, have to do with things being too different. States are allowed to set their own rules for voting technology. Most states further delegate this authority to the county level. The Supreme Court used this strange differential of voting techniques as their basis for the ruling in Bush v Gore to stop the recount of the Florida election results in 2000. Political bias at the county level has been charged against Ohio’s election managers in 2004. Many of the problems our democracy has experienced in this new century are due to the fact that elections are a completely different animal every 50 miles. If voters knew what to expect, had confidence in the results, they would be able to handle elections no matter how much their tolerance for closure.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hacktivism review Pt.1

Hacktivism and the Future of Democratic Discourse: A Review and Comment

David Totten

Alexandra Samuel’s analysis of the political wing of the hacker subculture shows some possible chinks in the armor of deliberative democracy. Her essay examines three types of political hacking activity: political cracking, performative hacktivism, and political coding. She describes the three techniques and discusses the philosophies of the people who engage in them. Next, Samuel considers the issues of anonymity and free speech raised by hacktivism, and how they relate to the theories of deliberative democracy espoused by Jurgen Habermas, Michael Froomkin and others. Samuel seems suspicious that the hacktivist tactics might not be in alignment with a deliberative democratic system, but she also sees the possibility that hacktivism could level the playing field for access to a “public sphere.” I feel that some of these activities—especially the performative hactivism and the political cracking—are very close to political violence, undertaken by non-government actors—also known as terrorism. The threat of online terrorism poses a fatal threat to an online public sphere, much than to offline democracy.

The political crackers are the outgrowth of the earlier forms of hacking, but directed towards a political agenda. They launch attacks that range from information theft, to disrupting web sites to sabotage. Samuel says the crackers usually adhere to a “hacker ethic” which not only governs their actions like a moral code, but also defines the political aims of their activities. They believe in hands-on access to computers, both hardware and software and in a right to take anything apart to learn how it works. They often use the slogan “information is free” for their tenet that copyrights are invalid and all data of any kind should be freely available to everyone. They mistrust authority and promote decentralization, and they judge each other by their hacking skill, not by age or race or social status. Their attacks are often directed towards those parts of society they see as being contrary to their code (Samuel 127).

Performative hackers are more theatrical. Their goals are to influence public opinion and government policy through high-profile stunts or pranks. The idea comes directly from pre-Internet forms of political protest such as demonstrations. They even refer to one of their activities as a “sit-in,” although instead of blocking access to a building, they aim to shut down access to a web site. These groups claim that their actions create a “level playing field” that moralizes even destructive actions (134).

Samuel focuses on those groups whose targets impede their access to free information under the “hacker ethic,” or the left-wing groups associated with the performative hacktivism methods. While she does recognize that state-sponsored hackers from China may have been responsible for an attack on American websites during the Kosovo conflict of 1998, in response to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia (124), she does not mention the frightening growth of far-right and Islamist groups that are using the Internet to organize and even attack their enemies. According to a report by the Canadian human rights group Friends of Simon Wiesenthal (www.wiesenthal.com), issued just this week (10/07/05), hate-speech sites on the Internet have increased 25% over 2004. The report says Al Qaeda has been using cybersquatting tactics to keep their websites running and is using hacker tactics to distribute files to operatives.

The other side of this is the cybervigilantes, groups of hackers who have taken it upon themselves to fight the War on Terror over the Internet. As reported online by Newsweek, July 13, 2005, a group called Internet Haganah has made a hobby out of disbanding Islamist websites. They started after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, and claim to have knocked 718 Islamic extremist sites off the Web, usually by notifying the hosting services or else by posting the offending URL’s on their website (haganah.org.il) and waiting for hacktivist community to launch an attack.

The US Government has not been pleased by their efforts. Some in the intelligence community have argued that by hacking the terrorist sites, these hacktivists are actually making them stronger—teaching them countermeasures.

Political coders focus on creating applications that circumvent laws and policies. One example Samuel cites is the DeCSS project that circumvents the copy protection system built into DVD movies (131).

Hacktivism review Pt.2

(note: Part one is ABOVE part two)

DeCSS is an excellent example of Lawrence Lessig’s idea of a conflict between “West Coast” and “East Coast” code, as explained to our class by Stu Shulman. While Congress, through the Digital Millennium Act specifically outlawed software that could be used to violate legal copyrights, and courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the act and prosecutions of violators, the applications still exist. The program has a life of its own can still can be downloaded from underground or offshore sites and used, illegally, in the US. In some countries, such as Russia, it is actually illegal to prevent someone from making a legal copy, so applications such as DeCSS will have a long life cycle in these places. So, which “code” is actually governing people’s behavior?

Samuel recognizes the conflict in espousing the virtues of free access to information while conducting “denial-of-service” (DoS) attacks designed to shut down websites (134). For security professional Barrett Lyon, profiled in the October 10, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, this is his main motivation for protecting websites from attacks, even some of his less savory clients, such as online gambling and pornography.

“The Internet is all about connecting things, communicating and sharing information, bits, pieces of data,” Lyon told reporter Evan Ratliff. “A denial-of-service attack is the exact opposite of that. It is taking one person’s will and imposing it on a bunch of others.”

For Samuel, this conflict relates to freedom of speech. Does hacktivism allow more freedom of speech or less? And how does that affect the goals of deliberative democrats? She notes that the problem is not really one of freedom to speak, but freedom to be heard. Samuel quotes Michael H. Goldhaber’s “TheAttention Economy and the Net”. While blogs may become ubiquitous, the attention of blog readers will remain finite. Pranksters and vandals have an edge competing for this attention. The more that is at stake, the harder people will fight for that attention, using tactics that range from pranks to terrorism.

Samuel seems more positive about the effects of the anonymity displayed by some hacktivists. She says that some of these groups attempt to maintain anonymity to avoid prosecution for illegal activities while others make little or no effort to hide their identities. However, even the crackers who could be prosecuted if they were discovered usually use a pseudonym, taking responsibility for their acts (137). Samuel suggests that the coders and crackers are going beyond simply creating pseudonyms and instead creating “public voices,” new personae that govern their online actions. This idea of a public voice was discussed in class by Peter Muhlberger, who said that being online could change how a person acts. Muhlberger said that a person actually adopts a new personality under these new conditions. This effect must be multiplied when one adopts a pseudonym to conduct illegal activities.

Can the “public sphere” ever truly be a place where equals debate ideas on equal footing? If the stakes are big enough—say, war and peace or property rights—won’t there always be a fringe that is willing to go to any lengths to ensure a positive outcome? Would hacktivists be willing to go as far as Islamist terrorists for their ends? If they could have stopped the Mexican government from putting down the Zapatista rebellion, would some members of the Electronic Disturbance Theater have been willing to die?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Voting Systems at MSNBC

This is such a fun little exercise, and a neat way to look at some of the alternative voting systems being tossed around these days... it's called Mockracy and it's on MSNBC.

Essentially, they're looking at cumulative voting, proportional voting and party-line voting systems and giving people a chance to try them out. It starts with the user creating an avatar: you pick a race (blue, purple, yellow, green or orange; also a gender, male/female, and a place to live. Finally, the user picks a political party from a list of twelve, ranging from "lower taxes" to "lower gas prices." Then, the avatar goes into three practice voting booths to try three different ways of voting.

Two political scientists, Rob Richie and Mark Rush, explain the pros-and cons of each system, but it's the actual voting that shows the consequences of the changes. With cumulative voting, voters cast 5 votes, each counting the same. I cast three votes for the low-gas-prices candidate, and one each for "gay rights," "good schools" and "foreign aid for poor countries." The brilliance of the demonstrator is that it displays actual voting results. I didn't look at racial issues, but was surprised to find that no blue people (like me) were elected! How did that happen? We make up 30% of the voting public, but we're not on the council? Still, this was the system I liked the best.

The second plan was proportional voting, also known as "instant run-off." Voters rank their choices, first through fifth. If their first choice isn't elected, their votes go on to the second choice. Candidates who don't have a clear majority at first can run for the second-place votes, and could even get elected.

The third demonstration is for a party-line system. I cast my one vote for a slate of five candidates from the "bring down gas prices" and found that I had been completely shut out of the process. "Defend America" and "Good schools" dominated the council under this election. Urban dwellers were marginalized while the suburban candidates took over the council. One council member was blue, but as the experts pointed out, this was the choice of the party, not me. The party system set the slate. This is a popular system around the world, where party issues are more important than individuals.

Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a switch to an instant run-off system a few years ago. So-called "third parties" brought the proposal, backed by the majority Republican party. It would have had the effect of drawing power away from the second party (the Democrats) and handing it to the two parties on the farther right and left, Alaskan Independence and Green. So, Democrats would be marginalized, Republicans would get support from the AIP, and the far-left Greens would be dismissed as representing too little of the public. Anchorage voters decided they liked a direct election better.

Of these three options, I like the cumulative voting best. It let me give some power to the outside issues that I cared about, but also let me weight my vote for the candidate I liked best. Still, all three of these eliminate geographical districts, so I don't have an individual representative and they also allow for candidates who don't have the support of the majority to gain significant power. I also worry that these three systems would encourage fragmentation of candidates along ideological lines. For example, while I support lower gas prices, I would have preferred to find a candidate who was, say, 70% with me on gas prices and at least 50% with me on schools, foreign aid and minority rights. Our current system forces every candidate to address every issue and take a stand on each one. I can weight which is more important: pro-choice, but anti-tax? Anti-gay but pro-development? It's up to me to decide which of these are the most important, and up to the candidates to live up to their promises.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Who is Harriet Miers? And who owns her blog?

I was chatting tonight with my friend Rene, a journalist in Phoenix, AZ. She pointed me to the spoof site http://harrietmiers.blogspot.com/, which is hillarious, by the way. Then she pointed out another site: http://justicemiers.com, which is a little weird. The biographical info on the site seems legit, however it was presented in such a haphazard way that it gave the impression it might be a disinformation campaign: a subversive attempt to pass off fake information as real to embarass the real supporters of Harriet Miers' candidacy for the Supreme Court of the United States.
I tried to use some of the tools suggested by Snyder in Chapter 3, Searching for Truth. I went to internic and typed in justicemiers.com. Here's the result:
Whois Server: whois.omnis.com
Referral URL: http://domains.omnis.com
Name Server: NS1.MESSAGE101.COM
Name Server: NS2.MESSAGE101.COM
Status: ACTIVE
Updated Date: 02-oct-2005
Creation Date: 29-sep-2005
Expiration Date: 29-sep-2006

Next, Snyder suggests going to the "whois" server cited in the listing: whois.omnis.com, however the operation timed out, so I was not able to get any more info that way. However, Omnis Network, LLC is obviously a legit operation of some kind... I took that name to Google.
Google gave me a site with "review" of Omnis, that was in fact nothing more than a self promotion page by Omnis, a web hosting service. According to their promotional pages, Omnis handles the domain name aquisition as well as all the hosting for websites, so it would be a good assumption that the owners of justicemiers.com probably paid Omnis to handle the hard work while they set up the page. Omnis is the official "owner" of the domain name, and the real owners' names are hidden from view.
Any other thoughts as to find out who the real owners are? I mean, aside from going to their donate page and calling the phone number for Progress for America, but that won't really tell me about the website, will it? Just about Progress for America. Perhaps if I ask nicely, somebody will confirm for me that they own the site. I'll try it out.
As to the gag-blog (again, I stress this brilliant satire,) the internic approach is useless since the domain is actually blogspot.com, and harrietmiers is the folder on the blogspot server where the site's pages reside (as Snyder points out.) I'm going to need another approach to ferrett this information out. Suggestions?