net.wars: What is hyperbole? (And what was wrong with Usenet, anyway?)

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 19 February 2011

This seems to have been a week for over-excitement. IBM gets an onslaught of wonderful publicity because it built a very large computer that won at the archetypal American TV game, Jeopardy. And Eben Moglen proposes the Freedom box, a more-or-less pocket ("wall wart") computer you can plug in and that will come up, configure itself, and be your Web server/blog host/social network/whatever and will put you and your data beyond the reach of, well, everyone. "You get no spying for free!" he said in his talk outlining the idea for the New York Internet Society.

Wendy M Grossman

Now I don't mean to suggest that these are not both exciting ideas and that making them work is/would be an impressive and fine achievement. But seriously? Is "Jeopardy champion" what you thought artificial intelligence would look like? Is a small "wall wart" box what you thought freedom would look like?

To begin with Watson and its artificial buzzer thumb. The reactions display everything that makes us human. The New York Times seems to think AI is solved, although its editors focus, on our ability to anthropomorphize an electronic screen with a smooth, synthesized voice and a swirling logo. (Like HAL, R2D2, and Eliza Doolittle, its status is defined by the reactions of the surrounding humans.)

The Atlantic and Forbes come across as defensive. The LA Times asks: how scared should we be? The San Francisco Chronicle congratulates IBM for suddenly becoming a cool place for the kids to work.

If, that is, they're not busy hacking up Freedom boxes. You could, if you wanted, see the past twenty years of net.wars as a recurring struggle between centralization and distribution. The Long Tail finds value in selling obscure products to meet the eccentric needs of previously ignored niche markets; eBay's value is in aggregating all those buyers and sellers so they can find each other. The Web's usefulness depends on the diversity of its sources and content; search engines aggregate it and us so we can be matched to the stuff we actually want. Web boards distributed us according to niche topics; social networks aggregated us. And so on. As Moglen correctly says, we pay for those aggregators - and for the convenience of closed, mobile gadgets – by allowing them to spy on us.

An early, largely forgotten net.skirmish came around 1991 over the asymmetric broadband design that today is everywhere: a paved highway going to people's homes and a dirt track coming back out. The objection that this design assumed that consumers would not also be creators and producers was largely overcome by the advent of Web hosting farms. But imagine instead that symmetric connections were the norm and everyone hosted their sites and email on their own machines with complete control over who saw what.

This is Moglen's proposal: to recreate the Internet as a decentralized peer-to-peer system. And I thought immediately how much it sounded like…Usenet.

For those who missed the 1990s: invented and implemented in 1979 by three students, Tom Truscott, Jim Ellis, and Steve Bellovin, the whole point of Usenet was that it was a low-cost, decentralized way of distributing news. Once the Internet was established, it became the medium of transmission, but in the beginning computers phoned each other and transferred news files. In the early 1990s, it was the biggest game in town: it was where the Linus Torvalds and Tim Berners-Lee announced their inventions of Linux and the World Wide Web.

It always seemed to me that if "they" – whoever they were going to be – seized control of the Internet we could always start over by rebuilding Usenet as a town square. And this is to some extent what Moglen is proposing: to rebuild the Net as a decentralized network of equal peers. Not really Usenet; instead a decentralized Web like the one we gave up when we all (or almost all) put our Web sites on hosting farms whose owners could be DMCA'd into taking our sites down or subpoena'd into turning over their logs. Freedom boxes are Moglen's response to "free spying with everything".

I don't think there's much doubt that the box he has in mind can be built. The Pogoplug, which offers a personal cloud and a sort of hardware social network, is most of the way there already. And Moglen's argument has merit: that if you control your Web server and the nexus of your social network law enforcement can't just make a secret phone call, they'll need a search warrant to search your home if they want to inspect your data. (On the other hand, seizing your data is as simple as impounding or smashing your wall wart.)

I can see Freedom boxes being a good solution for some situations, but like many things before it they won't scale well to the mass market because they will (like Usenet) attract abuse. In cleaning out old papers this week, I found a 1994 copy of Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 in which she demands a return to the "paradise" of the "accountable Net"; 'twill be ever thus. The problem Watson is up against is similar: it will function well, even engagingly, within the domain it was designed for. Getting it to scale will be a whole 'nother, much more complex problem.

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