Posted tagged ‘net neutrality’

Speaking of Taxonomy

June 3, 2009

Cory Doctorow’s latest Guardian blog post addresses the privitization of data classification on the internet via Google’s virtual monopoly on search.

He points out that before the advent of Search, internet developers assumed that all the information on the entire net would have to be arranged into categories, akin the Dewey Decimal System. It’s easy to see how this kind of enforced taxonomy can be problematic. As Doctorow explains:

Melvin Dewey didn’t predict computers; he also mixed Islam in with Sufism, and gave table-knocking psychics their own category. A full-contact sport like the internet just doesn’t lend itself to a priori categorisation.

The implementation of search engine technology, however, radically transforms the way we find and interact with data on the web.

Enter search. Who needs categories, if you can just pile up all the world’s knowledge every which way and use software to find the right document at just the right time?

But this is not without risk […] the way that search engines determine the ranking and relevance of any given website has become more critical than the editorial berth at the New York Times combined with the chief spots at the major TV networks. Good search engine placement is make-or-break advertising. It’s ideological mindshare. It’s relevance.

So, when a private company owns the algorithms that define how easy or difficult it is to access particular information or, in a less explicit sense, how much authority is given to some sources over others, the taxonomy of the internet is essentially privatized.

Technology Bill of Rights

May 19, 2009

Dovetailing perfectly with our discussion about the various modes of governance in relation to fair use, BoingBoing liked today to a Technology Bill of Rights drafted by Paul Venezia.

The six articles his lists address issues of liability for bugs in closed source software, the need for limitations on DRM, net neurality and anonymity, and so on. It’s a good thought piece in its own right, but particularly interesting here as we consider the various forms of authority that might be brought to bear on the privitization of technological resources. The idea that Venezia promotes here is that emerging world of digital technology and social interaction requires a codified set of universal rights for users, in particular to intercede in the imposition of (in this case, commercial or corporate) tyrrany. To quote Venezia:

The impetus for the creation of the Bill of Rights was the tyranny of the rulers in Britain and its effect on the colonies. As with much of human history, it takes a significant problem to cause the creation of a significant change to society. We may be nearing that point right now, and the time may soon be right for another Bill of Rights — one centered around technology.

Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, my sense is that the “significant problem” he’s referring to is the lack of corporate accountability inherrent in the wholesale privitization of the digital realm. It might be really useful to consider a comparison between this notion of technological rights and the development of labor regulation and unionization. In the latter, the notions of workers’ rights to fair wages, a safe workplace, etc. conflicted with free market notions of corporations’ (and supposedly workers’) rights to freely negotiate the terms of employment: if the poor laborer “wants” to work for peanuts, and the company wants to pay that much, who is the government to intervene? One could very easily see the same argument coming up in the contemprary technological debate: if the tech company wants to sell a product laden with proprietary, buggy software and the consumer agrees (at least implicitly though a EULA) to buy it that way, who’s to stop them? Indeed, this libertarian tone is prominent in the comments on Venezia’s post.

On a side note, perhaps Venezia should consider including an article regarding the retroactive disabling of tech functionality, such as in the case of the text-to-speech function on the Kindle that we discussed in an earlier post.