Death of the Internet [#50]

December 14th 2017: The day the internet died.

It’s a weird thing to wake up to, the repeal of net neutrality in the US. There’s is absolutely nothing that I, as a British citizen, could do to prevent the FCC from taking this course of action. Which, to be fair, isn’t too far from the reality for American citizens either; the result is not particularly unexpected, despite widespread criticism.

There’s also no way of knowing the impact it will have. Worst case scenario, as a non-American, would be seeing other governments (particularly my own) mimicking the decision and formally handing the web over to corporations, rather than people. Except, outside of the US the ISP market isn’t dominated by monopolies, so the market would actually stand a chance at forcing effective neutrality. That means I’m fairly insulated from the most obvious repercussions. Harder to measure, but probably more likely, are the ripple effects. How many new services will simply never exist if US providers decide that road blocks are more profitable than open highways? How much innovation in Silicon Valley will be lost to firms spending less on R&D and more on bandwidth?

On the other hand, if ISP’s in the US do abuse their new powers it could lead to the slow (or relatively sudden, depending on perspective) eroding of the US as a global leader in technology and software. Whilst the UK is not exactly well placed to pick up that slack, countless other countries would likely benefit. Less of an American influence on the web could actually be widely beneficial (of course, not to Americans).

The result is that the loss of net neutrality, from a global perspective, is a bit of a grey area. We may benefit or we may lose, but ultimately we will be slightly more able to shape that destiny. The ridiculousness of the decision is that such luxury is not afforded to the US itself. They are the ones rolling the dice, but they’re also the ones with the highest stake, all balanced precariously on an unknown odd. No matter what happens next it’s pretty unlikely the US will benefit, but the rest of the world just might.

On that note, if you are in the US and are rightfully worried/angered by the decision that occurred yesterday, I’d point you towards Ethan Marcotte’s break down. It offers a slim silver lining which is plausible (unlike some of the others doing the rounds) as well as an even, yet irritated, overview of what it could actually mean. Well worth a read and well worth enacting.

That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection [#32]

Standard workday, standard work lunch catching up on RSS feeds. Of course, quite a few of them are discussing the leaked “Anti-Diversity” manifesto from the, now infamous, ex-Google employee (name forgotten and ultimately unimportant). It’s been an interesting view into a very specific bubble of the tech sphere, but one which has helped elucidate the issue, if only a little.

Of particular note is the response from Adactio, which is easily understood by the title of the piece: “Intolerable“. I will hold my hand up right now and say that I find the whole issue a lot more complex than Jeremy Keith outlines, but I cannot argue with his conclusion. Nor can I argue with the incredibly diverse and well-written sources he links to, each of which is definitely worth a read.

That becomes particularly true if you’re anything like me: someone whose gut instinct was “this is utterly wrong”, but who found themselves wondering if, beneath the anger, fear and sexism, a valid point was lurking. Having now read through the links (linked below) I feel a little more confident in my gut reaction, which is a nice feeling.

Just to clarify my use of the phrase “valid point”, it is not valid that one gender is in any way better or worse at being involved in the tech sector (or any sector, for that matter). Instead, it’s more of an issue of how we go about addressing the very real disparities between both job prospects and job uptake by any dissuaded minority group (and yes, women are not a literal minority, but they are in tech due to centuries of discrimination, so I feel it a valid term within context). I have a personal distaste for anything that borders on “positive discrimination”. All it creates, long term, is embitterment and injustice, in my opinion. However, having read the links below I feel a lot more at ease that the diversity programmes at Google and similar companies are not going down this route, instead focusing on making the workplace a more attractive environment for everybody. That’s something I can get behind.

If there is one element of Keith’s article that I will find fault with, it’s the blanket tone of dismissal. I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a tricky thing to call out, because it’s an opinion I find myself feeling towards other subjects. I simply don’t feel the world is ever black and white enough to make a statement like:

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does.

But, hypocritically, I also find myself agreeing with the directly following statement:

But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

As an example, earlier this week the BBC came under fire for featuring Lord Lawson on a program about climate science. The argument for his presence is that it provides “the other side of the debate” and that the BBC have a mandate to be as impartial as possible. The issue with their reasoning is that it implies there is a debate to be had. In terms of scientific consensus, the degree to which man-made climate change is refuted is utterly negligible. The debate has been settled for decades and continuing to present it in any other way is directly harmful. It is akin, though less instantly vitriolic, to claiming that the BBC needs to include a Holocaust denier in documentaries on WWII. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that the vast majority of historians are wrong, but no organisation in their right-mind would claim that there is an actual debate soliciting both sides being heard.

Perhaps, then, it is I who is wrong on the Anti-Diversity Manifesto. Perhaps Keith is right and any discussion of non-diversity is, by its nature, only destructive and harmful because that debate, too, has been settled. Still, I can’t help but feel that claiming so and shouting it so loudly only serves to reinforce the opinions of dissenters. It’s hypocritical of me, but I don’t feel that shutting down people with these opinions is the right course of action. Perhaps, in time, that will change. For now, I’m just happy to see that the discussion being had is largely positive.

Reading List:

A Brief History of Women in Computing – Faruk Ates

So About This Googlers Manifesto – Yonatan Zunger

Dissecting the Google Employees Anti-Diversity Manifesto – Ether Alali

The Great iWall

Well that’s that then. The great legal firewall has descended and the BBC’s iPlayer service is now firmly on the other side. As of today, you can no longer watch catch-up TV for free in the UK; instead, you need to have a TV license.

On the one hand I feel this is the correct direction for the BBC to be heading in. Allowing free use of the iPlayer service has always struck me as just a little bit silly. Sure, programs disappear from it with irritating regularity/punctuality, but ultimately if you can just watch everything 24 hours later and save £150, that’s a no-brainer.

On the flipside, however, I am annoyed that the switch has come with no middle ground. Basically, iPlayer is now worth £150 a year. Yesterday, it was worth a staggering £0. There doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to this change, other than a possible “we screwed up, sorry”. Perhaps this is just a result of TV having evolved to the point where “live” is no longer a premium, but rather a hindrance. Personally I’m well aware that my own preference is to watch a series Netflix-style, in one extended sitting, rather than wait week in and week out. Still, I would have infinitely preferred a “web only” price (say £80?) to purely access iPlayer. Better yet, let the Beeb stick adverts before/after iPlayer content if you don’t have a license (like that’ll ever happen…).

Despite these flaws, the part I actually find the most irritating is how the BBC will determine if you are legally watching or not: a pop up confirmation box. That’s right, no logins, passwords, pin codes or accounts of any kind. Rather than using this opportunity to modernise their entire system and tie a TV license to an individual, rather than a property, we’ll be left with the same old, antiquated mess we had anyway. How they even vaguely hope to police this honour system is beyond me, though I imagine they will try, which is even more worrying.

I may never have been kept awake at night stressing about being falsely accused of watching live TV, but it has directly impacted my life in subtle ways. TVs, laptops, media players I buy can not, in any way, inherently s receive/play live TV; any ‘free’ setup boxes have gone straight to the nearest charity shop so that I can show I physically can’t break those laws. Now I’m stuck in a world where I can never prove that I haven’t been watching BBC programs.

Personally, I doubt I’m at much risk, but others face more serious threats. WiFi sharing has just become a lot more dubious, for one, and although I would never advocate leaving an open access router to your personal web connection I still know plenty of family friends who do so. Living in a block of flats I’m also worried about the potential interlinking of powerline tech (probably without cause).

As someone who sees £150 just too steep a price to watch Doctor Who, QI, HIGNFY and maybe 1 more series a year (The Night Manager?), I won’t be jumping at this new, expensive, identical iPlayer service. Maybe if they add some extra features or make some of the BBC’s back catalogue available on demand I’ll think again. Only time will tell.