Politics and server locations

Theorizing the Web 2014 included a panel on World Wide Web(s): Theorizing the Non-Western Web. The participants, from the program, follow:

  • Presider / Jillet Sarah Sam @JilletSarahSam
  • Hashmod / Alice Samson @theclubinternet
  • Panelists:
    • David Peter Simon | @davidpetersimon | The Do-Gooder Industrial Complex?
    • Jason Q. Ng | @jasonqng | Fit for Public Display: Rethinking censorship via a comparison of Chinese Wikipedia with Hudong and Baidu Baike
    • Tolu Odumosu | @todumosu | Phoning the Web: A critical examination of Web infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa
    • Dalia Othman |@daliaothman | Social Media, Activism and the Middle East

The live tweets from the session included some interesting tidbits.

The borderless internet is a myth

The Atlantic, The Myth of a Borderless Internet. Political borders are re-enshrined on the web in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Just like the cartographers of yore, multinational corporations—particularly Internet companies—play a role in defining and shaping political boundaries for the public’s consumption. This rise of huge, international corporations online has torn away at the Emerald Curtain that once obscured the variety of geopolitical boundaries that exist in the world, making clearer to the average person just how unsettled the planet’s borders really are.

Given the global nature of the Internet, corporate giants like Google and Microsoft are forced to define borders, often contending with demands from governments. The result? One’s view of certain countries’ borders is often dependent on the physical location from which one accesses Google or Bing maps. In other cases—such as that of the Western Sahara—jurisdiction is a determining factor. Microsoft, which has offices in Morocco, takes its cue from Rabat in determining the territory’s borders, while Google—which does not—draws a dotted line between Morocco and the Western Sahara, demarcating the disputed border.

Political borders are enshrined in mapping tools, but reflected differently based on the nation-state that you occupy. The web has clear political borders, and the map you see on the web does too.

Rather than remove content entirely as other companies do, Twitter created a system whereby content would be “withheld” from users in a given country. Users are notified that the content in question has been withheld due to a legal request from a government. In addition to Pakistan, the tool has been used in numerous countries, including France, Brazil, and Russia.

The tool’s usage means that one “view” of the platform from a given country is different from the view from another. In other words, a Pakistani Twitter user is provided a sanitized version of Twitter, while an American one has access to—as far as we know—whatever content they desire. Corporate decisions around controversial speech, such as this one, all too often result in the creation of an “iron curtain” of sorts, dividing the seemingly borderless Internet.

The web you see in one country might not be the same web you see in another country. Political borders matter.

Who owns the ccTLDs?

Lawfare blog covers an interesting case that attempts to answer the question Are Top-level Domains Property? 

On December 28 [2015], the Justice Department filed an amicus brief in Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, a case pending before the D.C. Circuit. At issue is whether country-code top-level domains are the property of those countries’ foreign governments.

Does a country’s government own the country-code top level domain that represents that country?

DOJ argues first that ccTLDs are not attachable “property” or “assets” under the FSIA or TRIA. Rather, ccTLDs “merely [] designat[e] . . . the national affiliation of a subset of the global Internet community,” including “millions of private businesses and individuals.

Although the right to designate its territory “Iran” is presumably valuable to the Iranian government, no one would suggest that the name “Iran” in an atlas or a newspaper—or even official publications—is itself the “property” of the Iranian government subject to attachment by creditors.  

The Justice Department focuses primarily on the practical mechanisms of Internet governance. To support its position, DOJ points to a 1994 Internet governance document describing the Internet naming authority as a responsibility, not a property right, as well as “the actual practice under which country-code top-level domains have been established and managed.” In practice, ICANN “delegat[es]” TLD management to regional managers on the basis of whether the manager will be a “technically competent trustee of the domain on behalf of the national and global Internet communities.” In this sense, TLDs differ from second-level domains, which private parties purchase from the TLD-managers. Importantly, DOJ does treat second-level domains as property.

Internet domain stewardship is complex. Per the court:

any court order treating TLDs as property would threaten “the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance” because other countries would react by “turn[ing] their backs on ICANN for good.” This risk of root zone anarchy not only eliminates any potential value for plaintiffs—who had hoped to profit from licensing Iran’s ccTLD—but also would “be devastating for ICANN.”

ICANN > a national government, in this case.

Searching without words

Search could be moving to images, in which case the languages may not play such a large part if images dominate web searches.

Fast Company goes Inside Baidu’s Plan To Beat Google By Taking Search Out Of The Text Era

In many cases, text-based search is not ideal for finding information. For instance, if you’re out shopping and spot a handbag you might like, it is far better to take a picture than to try and describe it in words. The same is often true if you see a flower or animal species that you would like to identify.

The Balkanization of the Internet

Political and legal borders interact to create a potentially balkanized future internet. Time Magazine says The Future of the Internet is Balkanization and Borders.

Rousseff’s plan to create walled-off, national Intranets followed reports that the United States has been surveilling Rousseff’s email, intercepting internal government communications, and spying on the country’s national oil company, so it was somewhat understandable. But her move could lead to a powerful backlash against an open Internet – one that would transform it from a global commons to a fractured patchwork severely limited by the political boundaries on a map.

The former Brazilian president wanted to protect her privacy by reinforcing political borders on the web.

The NSA has also opened a Pandora’s box by treating “citizens” and “foreigners” differently (even defining both groups in myriad different ways). U.S. rules also impose geo-locational-based jurisdictional mandates (based upon the route of your Internet traffic or the location of the data services and databases you use). Already, a German citizen accessing a New York City data center via a Chinese fiber line may find their data covered by an array of conflicting legal requirements requiring privacy and active surveillance at the same time.

What does it mean to be a citizen vs a foreigner when browsing the web and using the internet?

Chance thanks Obama for us with a ccTLD

Chance the Rapper has a new fashion line full of clothing that celebrates Barack Obama’s presidency: https://www.thankuobama.us/

With obvious references to Obama (the king Obama t-shirt) and some more oblique ones (a jersey with 44, because he was the 44th president), it’s only appropriate that the URL contains some symbolism.

He put the site up on thankuobama.us, indicating twofold:

  • Us as is “us” as in, we the people thank him for being our president.
  • But also Us as in US, as in USA, as in the ccTLD for the USA. The USA thanks him, but also like how much more patriotic of a URL can you get in this context.

Thank a former president with a URL that refers to the USA in multiple ways. Good work.

The tech media isn’t flat

Model View Culture confronts “The App You’ve Never Heard Of”: Exploring Western Bias in Tech Media.

It is flabbergasting that LINE–an app that beats out Messenger and WhatsApp in Thailand and Indonesia–or WeChat or even Alibaba would ever be so baldly described as “little-known.” Little known to Americans or Europeans? Perhaps, since they were not part of the original target market. But “little known” to millions of people in Asia? Certainly not.

This pattern reflects the arrogance and shortsightedness of tech publications which, although often having primarily Western staff, are consumed globally: English speakers around the world — both within and outside of the tech industry — consume Western tech news; after all, Silicon Valley is home to international giants like Facebook, Apple, and Google. Such headlines erase huge populations of users, not only internationally but even in the West itself. Take, for example, the large population of immigrants to the West: just as WeChat remains significant to Chinese Australian immigrants and their families, many immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds remain connected to the technology of their (or their extended family’s) homeland. For example, South Korea’s most popular chat app, KakaoTalk, is installed on 93% of smartphones in the country; in America, the majority of KakaoTalk’s downloads are by Korean immigrants and Korean Americans. Not acknowledging just how significant KakaoTalk is to the Korean tech industry and to Korean Americans is exclusionary and, frankly, ignorant.

Just because some tech comes from Silicon Valley doesn’t mean that tech popular in non-Western markets is inherently “unknown.”

Yet a biased, narrow focus in tech journalism contradicts and subverts these outcomes. It’s time tech writers and bloggers educate themselves about what’s dominating the markets in parts of the non-Western globe, and move towards journalism that truly reflects a commitment to technology that is changing the world… not just Silicon Valley.

Less infrastructure, more control over the Internet

The less infrastructure investments and diversity of connections that a country has to the Internet, the more control they can exert over the country’s overall connectivity.

Most countries have gradually moved towards increased diversity in their Internet infrastructure over the last decade, especially as it concerns international connectivity to the global Internet. However, some countries remain at severe risk of Internet disconnection, with only one or two providers at their “international frontier”. This minimal diversity is often maintained for political purposes, making it easier to disable international Internet connectivity if deemed necessary

via Breaking the Internet: Swapping Backhoes for BGP | Dyn Blog

Catalonia’s Referendum and the Internet

Catalonia has its own top level domain, .cat. Not a vanity domain, this TLD provides an element of national identity in a region of Spain that has sought independence for many years. In the wake of the referendum, the office of the TLD registry was raided and computers seized. As reported by Internet News:

The Guardia Civil officers entered the .cat registry’s offices around 9am local time this morning and have seized all computers in the domain registry’s offices in downtown Barcelona.

The move comes a couple of days after a Spanish court ordered the domain registry to take down all .cat domain names being used by the upcoming Catalan referendum.

The .cat domain registry currently has over 100 thousand active domain names and in light of the actions taken by the Spanish government it’s unclear how the registry will continue to operate if their offices are effectively shutdown by the Spanish authorities. The seizure won’t impact live domain names or general day to day operations by registrars, as the registry backend is run by CORE and leverages global DNS infrastructure. However it is deeply worrying that the Spanish government’s actions would spill over onto an entire namespace.

A TLD is a symbol of national and political independence that the Spanish government is likely seeking to remove by taking this action. The Internet Society issued two statements about the raid, one initial statement and a second clarifying statement.

The initial statement made it clear that the Internet Society sees TLD operators as neutral parties:

We are concerned by reports that this court order would require a top-level domain (TLD) operator such as .CAT to begin to block “all domains that may contain any kind of information about the referendum”. We do not see it as the expertise and mandate of TLD operators within the Internet’s ecosystem to engage in monitoring and blocking of content outside of receiving judicial requests related to specific domains.

The second statement underscores this:

We firmly believe that intermediaries (in this case the top-level domain (TLD) operator, but it could be any other intermediary such as an Internet Service Provider (ISP)) should not be put in the position of having to decide what content is legal and what is not. Simply put, this is not the role of TLD registries.

Regardless of the fact that the Catalan region is not an independent nation from Spain (although they voted to become one in the referendum), the TLD helps the community identify as a distinct group with a distinct identity and community that deserves to be represented as such on the Internet. Wikipedia provides additional context about the granting and ideals behind the .cat TLD.

Universal language translation: thx, Google

Google is working on improving translation to the point where we have a universal language translator. In the Smithsonian Magazine, Kissing Language Barriers Goodbye:

“One thing that surprises people when we talk about Translate is our team doesn’t have any linguists on it,” Estelle says. “We’ve launched 71 languages, and I would say our team doesn’t know how to speak the vast majority of them. A human translator is not going to be able to learn all these terms and things as fast as our [data] can learn from the web.”

And with the recent release of their Pixel Buds, Google is trying to produce the sci-fi level real-time language translator. From Engadget’s article Google’s Pixel Buds translation will change the world:

Google packed its headphones with the power to translate between 40 languages, literally in real-time. The company has finally done what science fiction and countless Kickstarters have been promising us, but failing to deliver on, for years. This technology could fundamentally change how we communicate across the global community.

Real-time translation can do a lot for breaking down barriers. Engadget continues with the praise:

You’ll be able to walk up to nearly anybody in another country and be able to hold a fluid, natural language conversation without the need for pantomime and large hand gestures, or worry of offending with a mispronunciation. International commerce and communication could become as mundane as making a local phone call.

Universal translation might not be universally good, however. The Smithsonian Magazine article continues:

She thinks the device could be somewhat useful with travel, business and international relations but not groundbreaking. At a certain level, we already have translators (people) in place, and most who work in foreign relations know the appropriate languages. A device, Murphy believes, could have negative consequences.

“I think it can make people lazy,” Murphy says. Translating languages can be mentally challenging by forcing the brain—especially one that knows more than two languages—to work in a different way, but the exercise is rewarding, nonetheless. The brain pulls from a place of linguistic empathy that even the finest voice translator could never reach.

While this universal communication could be a positive, Murphy acknowledges, “it might lead to people thinking they’re communicating when they’re not.” Culture is not always completely embodied in language (take sarcasm, for example), and communication is not always about the information being passed.

Translation is the “key” to unlocking a “truly global” web, but this sort of translation could also lead people to think they’re communicating when they’re not (to paraphrase the article). If you think you’re communicating with someone, but you’re talking past each other in a series of miscommunications, the UX of your world is off, so to speak. This happens in same-language communication as well. With the additional layer of auto-translation interference, it might be easier or harder to detect when such miscommunications happen.