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

Sofar Sounds: So far from DIY

I attended my first Sofar Sounds show on Friday night. It was a great night, attending a show with a friend and making a few new friends with those that we were sharing a couch with. Sofar Sounds hosts shows in secret locations, from people’s houses, apartments, or even offices, that their community offers up.

As someone who went to a lot of DIY shows in college, the show was a bit surreal. The Sofar show had all the trappings of a DIY show: a crowd of people who care about music, who’ve all traveled there to see a show, a show organized by someone they know or another friend knows. Except in this case, the someone they know is instead a company that they’ve paid money to, and they don’t know the artists or the promoters or even the location until the day of the show.

The DIY shows I’ve been to were characterized by familiar faces, familiar locations, but also hardworking dedicated musicians and music lovers doing the promotion, organization, and crowd-wrangling. Shows in living rooms, basements, kitchens, and garages. Realizing years later that you should’ve worn earplugs. A network of people that once you break into, you can start going to even more shows in more and more places over the years as people move in or away.

The crux of it being, of course, breaking into the network. How do you find a community of like-minded people who have the resources to host and promote house shows, and are doing just that? Sofar Sounds takes people who have the resources to host house shows and connects them with bands and a predefined, curated audience. Sofar shows are like the Lyft of DIY shows, and the commercialization feels somewhat awkward. Sofar Sounds takes the DIY show model and tries to “solve” it with a business model.

Emma Silvers covers that business model in depth in her article A New Guest at Your House Show: The Middleman for KQED Arts. No longer do the musicians and music lovers have to do the promotion, organization, and crowd-wrangling on their own. Instead, they operate as volunteer “ambassadors” for Sofar Sounds, but don’t get paid and still have to do crowd-wrangling. The musicians, on the other hand, might not get paid anything at all. The audience is largely formed of strangers, selected based on applications for tickets by Sofar Sounds.

Perhaps because of all this, the community at the Sofar show felt constructed. Our “ambassador” made me feel like I was alternately at a sporting event or at a team-building exercise with his efforts to pump up the crowd and get us to bond with each other at the same time. Thankfully no one tried to fist bump me. We were all united in our love of music and our willingness to obey the rules about when we were supposed to leave or when we were supposed to talk. Overall, it felt distinctly constructed, rather than a true community of repeated faces like the DIY experimental/punk scene I’d known before.

At the show, I met some people that I enjoyed talking to and would want to see again. Therein lies another problem with the constructed community—it’s building a network behind Sofar Sounds, not behind the bands themselves. I may never see the people I met at the show again, because the network and the community of people attending the show is so far removed from those promoting and organizing it.

Nevertheless, the DIY network has limited reach, and Sofar might help bands break out of that network. If your DIY shows are always performed for your friends and your family, how do you attract new people? Building an organic community takes time, dedication, commitment, but doesn’t exactly pay you quickly. Sofar might act as a kind of shortcut to getting your music in front of new people that might not otherwise stumble into your community. Even if it also doesn’t pay you quickly, and even if they hear your one show and you never see them again.

What does this business model mean for local bars that host music? How many of the artists actually make money from the $15 cover that we’re willing to commit to this ~experience~? Perhaps next time I’ll spend my money at Hotel Utah Saloon or another local venue without the secrecy or the middleman. Maybe the next Sofar show should take you by surprise by happening at an existing venue, with local bands that get a full cut of the ticket cost. Of course, then we’re back at venues full of people that ostensibly don’t care about the music but rather the night they’re trying to have despite it.

As another alternate to Sofar Sounds, Group Muse also operates on the more commercialized house show model, but hearkens back to an even earlier method of hosting house shows—the era of chamber music. Capitalizing on the goodwill of hosts, the shows happen in the same sorts of venues as Sofar Sounds shows, and feature classical chamber music instead of more mainstream singer songwriter type music. However, musicians are paid by the audience, so the platform operates more realistically as a platform rather than a true middleman.

I’ve similarly been to one Group Muse event, and found it a great exposure to a type of music I wouldn’t have sought out otherwise. And that seems to be the real fun behind the secret show atmosphere. Someone has brought you to a place, you have already paid, and you have pretty low expectations of what you might be listening to. The openness that makes any sort of house show a success is already there. So overall, I can’t really complain too much.

The music industry has been disrupted a lot by technological advances, but artists continue to not get paid enough for what they do for us. So go to secret shows. Find house shows, find DIY shows, go to Sofar shows, go to Group Muses, and check out the acts playing at your local bar. Go out, dance hard, and pay up. It’s worth it.


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.