The FT could not be more wrong about Brazil and the Internet.

The FT is worried about the Internet, and specifically what the Brazilians are up to with it as a result of the Snowden disclosures.

I am not. Details of Brazil’s very successful policy with regard to the development of the Internet are here, in a fine post on the Renesys blog. Basically, we’re seeing the conflation of two things here – the US’s genuine concern for the Internet, and its equally genuine concern for the interests of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the spooks.

What is the Internet? You can always start a good row on the NANOG list by asking for a definition. But I don’t think there is much real dispute that it’s fundamentally a set of interconnected autonomous networks. The key protocols overlay diverse media bearers and underlay diverse applications, while the routing system unites Autonomous System numbers, defined as networks having an independent routing policy. It differs from, say, the mobile carriers’ GRX and roaming hub infrastructure, or the older international voice interconnection systems, in that there is no central intermediary or necessary hierarchy. If AS X and AS Y want to interconnect directly, they can do so as long as they can physically reach each other.

As such, more local interconnection is always and everywhere a good thing for the Internet. Back in the 90s, although the rhetoric of radical networking was at its peak, the system was in fact heavily dependent on central intermediaries, the so-called Tier 1 operators. As a very rough generalisation, you could say that the Internet worked like it was meant to among US universities, government users, and research centres, and everyone else was eventually a customer. This had distinct geographical and political consequences – supposedly, the topological centre of the African Internet was the 111 8th Street carrier hotel in New York City, or the LINX in London, depending on who tells the tale. The convenience of this for the NSA should be more than obvious.

Those days are long gone. The Tier-1 operators no longer rule the earth like they once did, and anyway the club of Tier-1s has a very different membership now, with major players including Tata of India, Telecom Italia-Sparkle, and PCCW of Hong Kong where once it was a nearly total American monopoly. What changed? More competition, for a start, but also much more interconnection between customer networks. I mentioned the LINX, the London Internet Exchange. IXen are membership organisations that provide for peering between their members, and their spread has been a major factor in the quantitative growth and qualitative development of the Internet worldwide. Another important issue is the increasing tendency of eyeball networks – consumer ISPs – and content networks to peer directly.

To understand why this is a good thing, I recommend another Renesys post. Shorter paths equal lower latency, and more diverse paths equal greater resilience to disruption.

Latin America was rather late to this development. It exhibits the traits of the 1990s Internet to an extreme degree, with both nearly all its traffic to and from the wider world and enormous amounts of intra-regional traffic passing via Terremark’s NAP of the Americas in Miami. The politics of this, again, ought to be obvious, especially from a Latin point of view informed by their distinctive intellectual tradition. The economics and engineering of it are not good either. Locating hosting, applications, or content delivery infrastructure in a country that reaches its neighbours via a 5,000 mile submarine cable round trip is asking for trouble, and a structural barrier to scaling up an Internet company anywhere in the region.

Hence Brazil’s effort to create local IXen and ISPs and to build more regional fibre links, which has been a great success (check out the numbers in the post!). Not only do they want better connectivity, they also want participation in the Internet rather than just consumption of Google searches and lolcats. A good measure of this is AS numbers per capita. Theirs are rocketing.

latam-asn

(If you find this interesting, a more detailed technical report on it has just appeared here)

So, to summarise so far: there is nothing natural, open, or free about sending traffic from Sao Paulo to Rio via Miami. And the Internet founders did not intend and do not want this. It is bad economics and bad engineering, and the rest of the world left it behind years ago. Brazil is right to do everything possible to get rid of it, and its efforts are already bearing fruit. I think they are also right to identify it as a form of underdevelopment imposed on them by the rich. IETF and ISOC are very clear that peering and local interconnection are nothing but good.

We have an excellent counter-example to Brazil in the Renesys data set – Mexico, which had until very recently a private monopoly of telecoms, no regulator, and no IX. Mexico has far fewer AS numbers per capita and far less growth in this metric.

The FT is confusing the entirely healthy development of the Internet as it was intended to work, and indeed does in Europe, with the Great Firewall of China or the lesser firewalls of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Iran. In doing so, it is letting the US get away with using the rhetoric of free speech to maintain an exorbitant commercial privilege, and of course to tap Dilma Rousseff’s phone whenever this seems expedient. This agenda permits freedom in a negative sense, but at a real economic price and at the cost of giving up participation and control.

And it serves, probably unintentionally, another agenda – the Chinese or Iranian approach, in which free speech on the Internet is a political threat that must be censored and an open door for US competitors that must be closed by censorship in its secondary function as a non-tariff barrier. This one can work economically – note the huge Chinese Web 2.0 companies like QQ and Sina Weibo, or the roaring growth in AS numbers within Iran – but it is deeply illiberal and anti-democratic.

There is an alternative to this unattractive pair of options. That is real Internet development, like the Brazilians are doing, like Kenya is doing, or like Europe did in the 2000s. It must not be demonised by conflation with Chinese opinion management.

A right to be forgotten?

So we’re talking about the “right to be forgotten”. I am profoundly unconvinced about this. For a start, I can’t see how you can have an ethics of responsibility and at the same time a right to be forgotten. I am very interested in the past track record of people who want to exert power over me. That Boris Johnson used to claim that renationalising Railtrack was as bad as Robert Mugabe is, I think, relevant information to anyone who might have to vote for or against him. Similarly, the public memory of archives is enormously important, especially to anyone who intends to commit journalism.

That said, we should take petty tyranny, the abuse of private power, seriously too. We should take it seriously, among other things, because it is so common and it tends to be exercised in the same direction as all the other privileges in society. Having posted an embarrassing photo on Facebook should not actually be a bar to employment. Obviously, we’re living in a transitional era here – in the future, everyone will have an embarrassing Internet past, and therefore it will be unremarkable. The trouble is what happens in the meantime.

These two points are obviously in tension, if not contradiction. What I would like would be not so much a right to be forgotten, as a duty of tolerance, a right to be different or perhaps more importantly, a right to be wrong. Wrongness comes to us all. If you are never wrong, it suggests that you’re in denial, or that your ideas are simply uninteresting. And very often, being wrong is confused with just being unpopular.

But then, Harrowell, you’ve been very harsh on all sorts of people yourself. This is true, but I would claim that I’ve picked issues that are important and targets who can look after themselves.

To sum up, I would say that the notion of a right to be forgotten is worrying because we want it. This implies that we are scared of private bullying, and policed by elite consensus.

Beyond that, I am much more interested in the private use of public information, the deep-web stockpiles of ad-targeting metadata, which are worrying precisely because they are not directly observable. Then again, you have as much right to demand that you disappear from my notebook as from my mind.

épuration, crowdsourced

I’m not sure what either Ethan Zuckerman or Evgeny Morozov would make of this, but this is quite the revolutionary web crowdsourcing project. Piggipedia is an effort by Egyptian Flickr users to pool their photos from the revolution and identify the plain-clothes cops and private thugs responsible for the worst of the violence, with a view to prosecuting them or failing that, just ostracising the hell out of them. I presume this is also going to be a rare deployment outside China of the human flesh search engine. If sex infects new media like a virus, yadda yadda William Gibson feh, just wait ’til you see how revenge does.

Wait, where did the astroturf go?

I just noticed that a number of pro-Russian astroturf websites — including some that I used to read regularly — have gone dark.

First off, there are the Transnistria pages. The Tiraspol Times used to provide a weekly dose of happy, upbeat news about the good times in Transnistria. It’s gone now — “account suspended”.

Then there was transnistria.co.uk, a more or less daily blog that did the same thing, interspersed with some whining about how nobody was nice to Transnistria. That’s gone too. I can’t find archives for either of them, which is a shame — there was some wonderfully wacky stuff in there.

Visitpmr,com, the site for Transnistrian tourism (really) is still up, but it hasn’t been updated for a long time now. Pridenestrovie.net, same thing — still exists, nothing new since 2007. EODE.org, purporting to be an NGO, published one “report” about the wonderful state of Transnistrian democracy three years ago and has been “under construction” ever since. And transnistria.info hasn’t updated its news feed since March.

Okay, so someone was funding a disinformation/propaganda campaign for Transnistria, and they stopped. That’s no big deal. But some of the louder voices of the pro-Russian disinformatsiya have also fallen silent. Remember the British Helsinki Human Rights Group? Their website is gone, as is their “partner” OSCE Watch. (BHHRG’s loudest voice, professional nuisance John Laughland, has moved to Paris, where he’s working for a Russian-funded think tank. Can’t find what’s happened to the rest of them.) And ICDISS — the “International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty” — hasn’t updated their website in over a year.

It was always obvious that these various outlets were pieces of the same organism. It’s a little weird to see it confirmed this way, though. Wonder if we’ll ever find out how it all fit together behind the scenes. Eh, probably not.

Meanwhile: does anyone know a good English-language source for news about Transnistria? There’s a German-language site that’s still live, but it doesn’t update very often. There’s the Transnistrian Parliament’s website, which is interesting to look at — basically it’s like glimpsing an alternate universe where the USSR survived into the age of the internet — but not very informative. Otherwise, it’s a lot of scavenging among blogs and human rights reports and other such odds and ends.

I never thought I’d miss the Tiraspol Times and its friends, but it’s surprising how little is left now that they’re gone.

So what is it with Tory MEPs and the Internet?

Those horrible surveillance proposals came up again in the European Parliament, and got shot down again. Even though their co-author Syed Kamall did come out against some forms of mass surveillance, I promised I’d look into the two British Conservative MEPs who keep doing this. Anyway, so we’ve got Syed Kamall and Malcolm Harbour, and we’ve also got the great new Web site for spying on MEPs, Votewatch.eu, as well as a gaggle of other things.

Harbour is easy enough to deal with; as his Wikipedia article explains, he was involved with a highly transparent lobby for software patents which sent unsolicited bulk e-mail from his address, supposedly without his knowledge. More about the “Campaign for Creativity” – in reality, Microsoft – is here. He’s now a “political member” and member of the board of governors of the European Internet Foundation, whose “business members” include several firms involved with the CFC and which was itself party to the software-patent campaign. Conveniently, according to the EIF’s Web site, only the business members have to pay a membership fee.

Kamall, who is leading the Tory list for the London region at next month’s election, is slightly different. His primary outside interest is something called the “Global Business Research Institute”, a supposed think-tank arguing for the benefits of globalisation which has a rather second-rate Web site and not very much else. In fact, it doesn’t seem to do anything much but collect links and accept donations – a figure of $500 is mentioned. At some point it seems to have been associated with Alex Singleton’s Globalisation Institute. What interests me about this is why, if he wants to blog, he doesn’t just get a blog – why does he need an Institute?
Apparently the institute is a British company limited by guarantee, that is to say, a non-profit entity (so donations are tax-deductible) – its entry in the register of companies is here.

However, it can hardly explain his commitment to total surveillance; its total expenditure for 2008 was £15, the fee for filing its accounts.