Saturday, August 5, 2017


Trust is a crucial part of our society.  We trust other drivers on the road not to crash into our cars, and we trust restaurant workers to not spit in our food.  We do this even though these types of incidents occur regularly all over the world.[i]  We retain our trust in these two situations because the rate of these negative occurrences is negligible for such mundane, every day activities.  Not only that, but it is easy for us to believe that most others on the road are reasonably competent drivers and we trust that they have some sense of self preservation.  Similarly, it is safe to assume that any restaurant manager would quickly punish a worker caught spitting in customers' food.  These are only two simple examples of every day trust, but without it society cannot function.
What is interesting to consider is the concept of an anonymous restaurant worker who able to spit in food with impunity, with there being no effective way for a customer or management to identity or track them down.  The onset of the Information Age has allowed for the conceptual anonymous restaurant worker to come to life, albeit in a digital world.  Today, the Internet is a playground to hordes of users acting anonymously, doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do if their identities were known.  They have made things such as illegal hacking, fake news, and cyberbullying commonplace.  This is because through anonymity, they are not subject to many of what Bruce Schneier, in his 2012 book Liars & Outliers, calls “societal pressures.”[ii]  He explains that there are four types of societal pressures that build and maintain trust in society: moral pressure, relating to our innate personal sense of wrong and right; reputational pressure, relating to how others in society respond to and judge our actions; institutional pressure, relating to the established rules, laws, norms, and customs of a given group; and security systems, technical or procedural mechanisms that prevent unwanted behavior.  Of these, only one is capable of effectively combating the negative impacts of anonymous internet usage – security systems.  If the Internet is to become fully ingrained and integrated into society, new security policy and technologies must be put in place to limit anonymous action online and ensure that the required level of societal trust is maintained.
In terms of trust, it is easy to see how our online and offline lives are at odds with each other.  Because a high degree of trust is something that is required for society to function, the Internet in its current form will continue to make a negative social impact.  Outside of the Internet, anonymity is the exception.  In normal day-to-day life, we are expected to carry identification with us, put license plates on our cars, and have addresses on our homes.  By default, our actions in the world are not anonymous, unless action is taken to ensure otherwise.  A common example of which would be to put on a ski mask to hide one's identity – an action generally regarded as bad, not trustworthy, and dissuaded through traditional societal pressures. 
Supporters of anonymity online would argue that it provides a freedom of expression -- freedom to create content on the Internet without burden of taking responsibility for it.  Further, supporters may argue that a middle ground, pseudo-anonymity, can provide the best of both words.  Pseudo-anonymity enables this freedom while also maintaining, through back-end technical means, a link to an actual identity. The purported benefit is that a user’s identity can be known for possible law enforcement reasons, but also at the same time creates an illusion of anonymity for the general user population.  At the end of the day, online anonymity comes at a huge expense to our government[iii], which is forced to constantly surveil the entire network, capturing and storing vast amounts of data to try and maintain a system of trust.  Despite this huge cost and effort there are remain relatively easy ways to maintain anonymity online.  And a lot of damage has been done to our society due to the anonymous nature of the Internet.  Examples of this include the weaponization of social media by terrorist organizations[iv], fake media outlets unreasonably swaying popular decision making[v], and negatively influencing society's already lackluster appreciation of the truth[vi].  We would be naive to think that this societal damage has not been made possible by the anonymity afforded by the Internet.
But what can be done?  After all, from a technological perspective, from its foundation the network has always catered to those who wish to remain anonymous.  The answer is security systems -- the only one of Schneier's societal pressures that be put in place to help prevent anonymous activity online.   Some Internet services, a great example of which being Facebook, have done an admirable job of working to reduce the amount of anonymous user activity.   By taking strides to enforce a one-to-one relationship between a user of the system and an actual person, people are held accountable for what they say and do online – law enforcement using Facebook to solve crimes is an almost every day occurrence.[vii]  However, the Facebook model is incomplete because, through allowing linked content from outside services, they have exposed users to one of the worst aspects of anonymity online and helped to create a media-fueled divisive culture[viii].  What is instead needed is the inverse of the current trust paradigm of the Internet: legislation from our leaders that enforces a one-to-one identification at the network level.  What this means is that as soon as a user is connected to the network, their identity should be known and maintained.  Personal identification would be the default on the Internet, not the other way around.  While this model could also allow for anonymity within certain spheres – services which allow users to share content pseudo-anonymously -- the overarching trust of the Internet would be maintained by enabling the other societal pressures.  After all, as Schneier writes, “We humans are a social species, and more often than not someone is watching.  And that makes an enormous difference.”

[i] Over a million people die in road crashes every year (
[ii] Schneier, B. (2012). Liars and outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive. Indianapolis. Wiley.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A case for an open internet

It is generally known that the internet has revolutionized almost every aspect of society.  Access to the internet has become just as ubiquitous as the telephone – common in everyday use.  While this use, for many people, simply means the ability to socialize with friends or get some shopping done quickly, the internet also, and more importantly, fuels digital innovation.  It does this chiefly by enabling new combinations of technologies.  The Waze phone app combines GPS and social media to provide the best possible driving routes.  Yelp combines GPS and restaurant reviews to help a traveler quickly find a great place to eat – and then provide real-time driving directions.  Google Assistance pairs artificial intelligence and a mobile phone camera to chronicle a user’s friends and family, creating memories that will last forever.  These are examples which exemplify how important open internet access is for today’s digital world.  If technological development is a major goal of our society, and if laying a groundwork for future innovation is a priority, then internet access should be considered a basic utility – equally open for everyone to access.   
In modern discussion, this concept is more generally referred to as net neutrality – an idea around which proponents have gathered on both sides, either for and against.  On one side are the established telecommunication companies who want to protect their profits by limiting regulation of their business.  On the other side, there are the supporters of net neutrality, who argue that telecommunications companies, in the name of greater profits, will eventually force certain internet services (for example: Facebook, Google, or Amazon) to pay for faster service, thereby throttling speeds for others services who do not pay, giving the incumbent firms an advantage over new competitors.  Another fear is that preferred access to specific sites will be bundled together into consumer packages, much like television sports packages offered today, which come with additional fees per month.  Ultimately, the idea that internet access being curated or tailored that would give preference to certain organizations, by grim necessity means that other groups will – to at least some degree - be excluded.  This inherent exclusion would hamper future open innovation by creating a stranglehold on the internet by the telecommunications industry, even more so than it enjoys today.  Even worse, this exclusion would hinder those who seek to create new advanced technologies, which is required if technological advancement is a serious goal of society.    
Back in 2014, two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, wrote a book about something they coined "The Second Machine Age"[i] -- a not-too-distant future defined by an explosion of technical innovation and economic growth, primarily fueled by the invention of the computer and, subsequently, the internet.  They based their concept on the industrial-era first machine age, when the invention of the steam engine acted as a great enabler by propelling (often literally) the developed world forward exponentially -- in terms of both economic growth and quality of life.  One key concept, they say, is that the boom did not take place immediately after the invention of the steam engine -- it took time to fully adapt to the new technology, through innovation.  In just the same way, it has taken decades since the advent of the computer for the services which, up until today previously unthinkable, to come to market and be commonplace.  This is due primarily to the dramatic increase of two factors in the last several years: computing power and connection speed over the internet.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee purport that the world is soon approaching the start of their second machine age, heralded by the development of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data analytics.  However, no matter how advanced any singular technology is, the key ingredient will always be what brings everything together, the connectivity.  This key ingredient, open internet access, paramount in bringing about the second machine age.
 This is evidenced in two ways.  First, open innovation is the hallmark of the internet -- it would not exist, at least not in any meaningful way, if the early pioneers were simply out for a profit.  Instead, both academics and nerds-in-general worked together to build something that benefited the entire world on many levels.  They did this by creating an infrastructure that was open and could be sequentially built on – agnostic to whether the development was by a commercial entity building a website to sell things, or a group of friends setting up a beer trading discussion board.  In other words, the internet benefits everyone, and enables free competition among businesses by not placing restrictions on smaller companies.  For big business and government to now try and somehow alter this basic tenant would be an egregious attack on information freedom and the innovative power of society. 
Second, most innovation is not done through raw invention, but by combining technologies – combinational innovation.  The steam engine itself did not single-handedly deliver the world into the first machine age – it took a few decades.  Through combinational innovation during the first machine age, society experienced a drastic boom of technological advancement and economic growth, and it is the same today with the internet.  As advanced as some services are today, at its core the internet is not much more than the networks academics used to share information in the early days.  Simply put, it will take time for innovators to fully deliver on what the internet has paved the way for.  We have not yet reached the point of stagnation – novel products are still coming to market almost daily that can compete with larger, more established market offerings.  As Brynjolfsson writes, “Not only are the new technologies exponential, digital, and combinatorial, but most of the gains are still ahead of us. In the next twenty-four months, the planet will add more computer power than it did in all previous history. Over the next twenty-four years, the increase will likely be over a thousand-fold.”
For telecommunications companies, big business, or the government to influence what can and cannot be accessed on the internet would be relegating it to the domain of mere entertainment, where sports packages can be bundled and maximum profits can be realized.  But the internet has become so much more than that – it is now an enabler of healthcare services, life/safety equipment, and critical infrastructure -- every day becoming more and more a basic, fundamental requirement of modern life.  For these reasons, it is imperative that lawmakers and industry leaders remain vigilant to ensure that the internet remains open and accessible to all, as a basic utility.

[i] Brynjolfsson, E. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.