Twenty comedians walk into a bar…

The Internet was, famously, created to withstand a bomb outage. In 1998 Matt Blaze and Steve Bellovin said it, in 2002 it was still true, and it remains true today, after 50 years of development: there are more efficient ways to kill the Internet than dropping a bomb.

Take today. The cybersecurity company Crowdstrike pushed out a buggy update, and half the world is down. Airports, businesses, the NHS appointment booking system, supermarkets, the UK’s train companies, retailers…all showing the Blue Screen of Death. Can we say “central points of failure”? Because there are two: Crowdstrike, whose cybersecurity is widespead, and Microsoft, whose Windows operating system is everywhere.

Note this hasn’t killed the *Internet*. It’s temporarily killed many systems *connected to* the Internet. But if you’re stuck in an airport where nothing’s working and confronted with a sign that says “Cash only” when you only have cards…well, at least you can go online to read the news.

The fix will be slow, because it involves starting the computer in safe mode and manually deleting files. Like Y2K remediation, one computer at a time.

***

Speaking of things that don’t work, three bits from the generative AI bubble. First, last week Goldman Sachs issued a scathing report on generative AI that concluded it is unlikely to ever repay the trillion-odd dollars companies are spending on it, while its energy demands could outstrip available supply. Conclusion: generative AI is a bubble that could nonetheless take a long time to burst.

Second, at 404 Media Emanuel Weiburg reads a report from the Tony Blair Institute that estimates that 40% of tasks performed by public sector workers could be partially automated. Blair himself compares generative AI to the industrial revolution. This comparison is more accurate than he may realize, since the industrial revolution brought climate change, and generative AI pours accelerant on it.

TBI’s estimate conflicts with that provided to Goldman by MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, who believes that AI will impact at most 4.6% of tasks in the next ten years. The source of TBI’s estimate? ChatGPT itself. It’s learned self-promotion from parsing our output?

Finally, in a study presented at ACM FAccT, four DeepMind researchers interviewed 20 comedians who do live shows and use AI to participate in workshops using large language models to help write jokes. “Most participants felt the LLMs did not succeed as a creativity support tool, by producing bland and biased comedy tropes, akin to ‘cruise ship comedy material from the 1950s, but a bit less racist’.” Last year, Julie Seabaugh at the LA Times interviewed 13 professional comedians and got similar responses. Ahmed Ahmed compared AI-generated comedy to eating processed foods and, crucially, it “lacks timing”.

***

Blair, who spent his 1997-2007 premiership pushing ID cards into law, has also been trying to revive this longheld obsession. Two days after Keir Starmer took office, Blair published a letter in the Sunday Times calling for its return. As has been true throughout the history of ID cards (PDF), every new revival presents it as a solution to a different problem. Blair’s 2024 reason is to control immigration (and keep the far-right Reform party at bay). Previously: prevent benefit fraud, combat terorism, streamline access to health, education, and other government services (“the entitlement card”), prevent health tourism.

Starmer promptly shot Blair down: “not part of the government’s plans”. This week Alan West, a home office minister 2007-2010 under Gordon Brown, followed up with a letter to the Guardian calling for ID cards because they would “enhance national security in the areas of terrorism, immigration and policing; facilitate access to online government services for the less well-off; help to stop identity theft; and facilitate international travel”.

Neither Blair (born 1953) nor West (born 1948) seems to realize how old and out of touch they sound. Even back then, the “card” was an obvious decoy. Given pervasive online access, a handheld reader, and the database, anyone’s identity could be checked anywhere at any time with no “card” required.

To sound modern they should call for institutionalizing live facial recognition, which is *already happening* by police fiat. Or sprinkled AI bubble on their ID database.

Databases and giant IT projects that failed – like the Post Office scandal – that was the 1990s way! We’ve moved on, even if they haven’t.

***

If you are not a deposed Conservative, Britain this week is like waking up sequentially from a series of nightmares. Yesterday, Keir Starmer definitively ruled out leaving the European Convention on Human Rights – Starmer’s background as a human rights lawyer to the fore. It’s a relief to hear after 14 years of Tory ministers – David Cameron,, Boris Johnson, Suella Braverman, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak – whining that human rights law gets in the way of their heart’s desires. Like: building a DNA database, deporting refugees or sending them to Rwanda, a plan to turn back migrants in boats at sea.

Principles have to be supported in law; under the last government’s Public Order Act 2023 curbing “disruptive protest”, yesterday five Just Stop Oil protesters were jailed for four and five years. Still, for that brief moment it was all The Brotherhood of Man.

Illustrations: Windows’ Blue Screen of Death (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

The return of piracy

In Internet terms, it’s been at least a generation since the high-profile fights over piracy – that is, the early 2000s legal actions against unauthorized sites offering music, TV, and films, and the people who used them. Visits to the news site TorrentFreak this week feel like a revival.

The wildest story concerns Z-Library, for some years the largest shadow book collection. Somewhere someone must be busily planning a true crime podcast series. Z-Library was briefly offline in 2022, when the US Department of Justice seized many of its domains. Shortly afterwards there arrived Anna’s Archive, a search engine for shadow libraries – Z-Library and many others, and the journal article shadow repository Sci-Hub. Judging from a small sampling exercise, you can find most books that have been out for longer than a month. Newer books tend to be official ebooks stripped of digital rights management.

In November 2022, the Russian nationals Anton Napolsky and Valeriia Ermakova were arrested in Argentina, alleged to be Z-Library administrators. The US requested extradition, and an Argentinian judge agreed. They appealed to the Argentinian supreme court, asking to be classed as political refugees. This week, a story in local publication La Voz, made its way north. As Ashley Belanger explains at Ars Technica, Napolsky and Ermakova decided not to wait for a judgment, escaped house arrest back in May, and vanished. The team running Z-library say the pair are innocent of copyright infringement.

Also missing in court: Anna’s Archive’s administrators. As noted here in February; the library service company OCLC sued Anna’s Archive for having exploited a security hole in its website in order to scrape 2,2TB of its book metadata. This might have gone unnoticed, except that the admins published the news on its blog. OCLC is claiming that the breach has cost millions to remediate its systems.

This week saw an update to the case: OCLC has moved for summary judgment as Anna’s Archive’s operators have failed to turn up in court. At TorrentFreak, Ernesto van der Sar reports that OCLC is also demanding millions in damages and injunctive relief barring Anna’s from continuing to publish the scraped data, though it does not ask for the site to be blocked. (The bit demanding that Anna’s Archive pay the costs of remediating OCLC’s flawed systems is puzzling; do we make burglars who climb in through open windows pay for locksmiths?)

And then there is the case of the Internet Archive’s Open Library, which claims its scanned-in books are legal under the novel theory of controlled digital lending. When the Internet Archive responded to the covid crisis by removing those controls in 2020, four major publishers filed suit. In 2023, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled against the Internet Archive, saying its library enables copyright infringement. Since then, the Archive has removed 500,000 books.

This is the moment when lessons from the past of music, TV, and video piracy could be useful. Critics always said that the only workable answer to piracy is legal, affordable services, and they were right, as shown by Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, which launched its paid streaming service in 2007, and so many others.

It’s been obvious for at least two years that things are now going backwards. Last December, in one of many such stories, the Discovery/Warner Brothers merger ended a licensing agreement with Sony, leading the latter to delete from Playstation users’ libraries TV shows they had paid for in the belief that they would remain permanently available. The next generation is learning the lesson. Many friends over 40 say they can no longer play CDs or DVD; teenaged friends favor physical media because they’ve already learned that digital services can’t be trusted.

Last September, we learned that Hollywood studios were deleting finished, but unaired programs and parts of their back catalogues for tax reasons. Sometimes, shows have abruptly disappeared mid-season. This week, Paramount removed decades of Comedy Central video clips; last month it axed the MTV news archives. This is *our* culture, even if it’s *their* copyright.

Meanwhile, the design of streaming services has stagnated. The complaints people had years ago about interfaces that make it hard to find the shows they want to see are the same ones they have now. Content moves unpredictably from one service to another. Every service is bringing in ads and raising prices. The benefits that siphoned users from broadcast and cable are vanishing.

As against this, consider pirate sites: they have the most comprehensive libraries; there are no ads; you can use the full-featured player of your choice; no one other than you can delete them; and they are free. Logically, piracy should be going back up, and at least one study suggests it is. If only they paid creators…

The lesson: publishers may live to regret attacking the Internet Archive rather than finding ways to work with it – after all, it sends representatives to court hearings and obeys rulings; if so ordered, they might even pay authors. In 20 years, no one’s managed to sink The Pirate Bay; there’ll be no killing the shadow libraries either, especially since my sampling finds that the Internet Archive’s uncorrected scans are often the worst copies to read. Why let the pirate sites be the one to offer the best services?

Illustrations: The New York Public Library, built 1911 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Safe

That didn’t take long. Since last week’s fret about AI startups ignoring the robots.txt convention, Thomas Claburn has reported at The Register that Cloudflare has developed a scraping prevention tool that identifies and blocks “content extraction” bots attempting to crawl sites at scale.

It’s a stopgap, not a solution. As Cloudflare’s announcement makes clear, the company knows there will be pushback; given these companies’ lack of interest in following existing norms, blocking tools versus scraping bots is basically the latest arms race (previously on this plotline: spam). Also, obviously, the tool only works on sites that are Cloudflare customers. Although these include many of the web’s largest sites, there are hundreds of millions more that won’t, don’t, or can’t pay for its services. If we want to return control to site owners, we’re going to need a more permanent and accesible solution.

In his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig finds four forms of regulation: norms, law, markets, and architecture. Norms are failing. Markets will just mean prolonged arms races. We’re going to need law and architecture.

***

We appear to be reaching peak “AI” hype, defined by (as in the peak of app hype) the increasing absurdity of things venture capitalists seem willing to fund. I recall reading the comment that at the peak of app silliness a lot of startups were really just putting a technological gloss on services that young men will previously have had supplied by their mothers. The AI bubble seems to be even less productive of long-term value, calling things “AI” that are not at all novel, and proposing “AI” to patch problems that call for real change.

As an example of the first of those, my new washing machine has a setting called “AI patterns”. The manual explains: it reorders the preset programs on the machine’s dial so the ones you use most appear first. It’s not stupid (although I’ve turned it off anyway, along with the wifi and “smart” features I would rather not pay for), but let’s call it what it is: customizing a menu.

As an example of the second…at Gizmodo, Maxwell Zeff reports that Softbank is claiming to have developed an “emotion canceling” AI that “alters angry voices into calm ones”. The use Softbank envisages is to lessen the stress for call center employees by softening the voices of angry customers without changing their actual words. There are, as people pointed out on Mastodon after the article was posted there, a lot smarter alternatives to reducing those individuals’ stress. Like giving them better employment conditions, or – and here’s a really radical thought – designing your services and products so your customers aren’t so frustrated and angry. What this software does is just falsify the sound. My guess is that if there is a result it will be to make customers even more angry and frustrated. More anger in the world. Great.

***

Oh! Sarcasm, even if only slight! At the Guardian, Ned Carter Miles reports on “emotional AI” (can we say “oxymoron”?). Among his examples is a team at the University of Groningen that is teaching an AI to recognize sarcasm using scenes from US sitcoms such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory. Even absurd-sounding research can be a good thing. I’m still not sure how good a guide sitcoms are for identifying emotions in real-world context even apart from the usual issues of algorithmic bias. After all, actors are given carefully crafted words and work harder to communicate their emotional content than ordinary people normally do.

***

Finally, again in the category of peak-AI-hype is this: at the New York Times Cade Metz is reporting that Ilya Sutskever, a co-founder and former chief scientist at OpenAI, has a new startup whose goal is to create a “safe superintelligence”.

Even if you, unlike me, believe that a “superintelligence” is an imminent possibility, what does “safe” mean, especially in an industry that still treats security and accessibility as add-ons? “Safe” is, like “secure”, meaningless without context and a threat model. Safe from what? Safe for what? To do what? Operated by whom? Owned by whom? With what motives? For how long? We create new intelligent humans all the time. Do we have any ability to ensure they’re “safe” technology? If an AGI is going to be smarter than a human, how can anyone possibly promise it will be, in the industry parlance, “aligned” with our goals? And for what value of “our”? Beware the people who want to build the Torment Nexus!

It’s nonsense. Safety can’t be programmed into a superintelligence any more than Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.

Sutskever’s own comments are equivocal. In a video clip at the Guardian, Sutsekver confusingly says both that “AI will solve all our problems” and that it will make fake news, cyber attacks, and weapons much worse and “has the potential to create infinitely stable dictatorships”. Then he adds, “I feel that technology is a force of nature.” Which is exactly the opposite of what technology is…but it suits the industry to push the inevitability narrative that technological progress cannot be stopped.

Cue Douglas Adams: “This is obviously some strange use of the word ‘safe’ I wasn’t previously aware of.”

Illustrations: The Big Bang Theory‘s Leonard (Johnny Galecki) teaching Sheldon (Jim Parsons) about sarcasm (Season 1, episode 2, “The Big Bran Hypothesis”).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Changing the faith

The governance of Britain and the governance of the Internet have this in common: the ultimate authority in both cases is to a large extent a “gentleman’s agreement”. For the same reason: both were devised by a relatively small, homogeneous group of people who trusted each other. In the case of Britain, inertia means that even without a written constitution the country goes on electing governments and passing laws as if.

Most people have no reason to know that the Internet’s technical underpinnings are defined by a series of documents known as RFCs, for Requests(s) for Comments. RFC1 was defined in April 1969; the most recent, RFC9598, is dated just last month. While the Internet Engineering Task Force oversees RFCs’ development and administration, it has no power to force anyone to adopt them. Throughout, RFC standards have been created collaboratively by volunteers and adopted on merit.

A fair number of RFCs promote good “Internet citizenship”. There are, for example, email addresses (chiefly, webmaster and postmaster) that anyone running a website is supposed to maintain in order to make it easy for a third party to report problems. Today, probably millions of website owners don’t even know this expectation exists. For Internet curmudgeons over a certain age, however, seeing email to those addresses bounce is frustrating.

Still, many of these good-citizen practices persist. One such is the Robots Exclusion Protocol, updated in 2022 as RFC 9309, which defines a file, “robots.txt”, that website owners can put in place to tell automated web crawlers which parts of the site they may access and copy. This may have mattered less in recent years than it did in 1994, when it was devised. As David Pierce recounts at The Verge, at that time an explosion of new bots were beginning to crawl the web to build directories and indexes (no Google until 1998!). Many of those early websites were hosted on very small systems based in people’s homes or small businesses, and could be overwhelmed by unrestrained crawlers. Robots txt, devised by a small group of administrators and developers, managed this problem.

Even without a legal requirement to adopt it, early Internet companies largely saw being good Internet citizens as benefiting them. They, too, were small at the time, and needed good will to bring them the users and customers that have since made them into giants. It served everyone’s interests to comply.

Until more or less now. This week, Katie Paul is reporting at Reuters that “AI” companies are blowing up this arrangement by ignoring robots.txt and scraping whatever they want. This news follows reporting by Randall Lane at Forbes that Perplexity.ai is using its software to generate stories and podcasts using news sites’ work without credit. At Wired, Druv Mehrotra and Tim Marchman report a similar story: Perplexity is ignoring robots.txt and scraping areas of sites that owners want left alone. At 404 Media, Emmanuel Maiberg reports that Perplexity also has a dubious history of using fake accounts to scrape Twitter data.

Let’s not just pick on Perplexity; this is the latest in a growing trend. Previously, hiQ Labs tried scraping data from LinkedIn in order to build services to sell employers, the courts finally ruled in 2019 that hiQ violated LinkedIn’s terms and conditions. More controversially, in the last few years Clearview AI has been responding to widespread criticism by claiming that any photograph published on the Internet is “public” and therefore within its rights to grab for its database and use to identify individuals online and offline. The result has been myriad legal actions under data protection law in the EU and UK, and, in the US, a sheaf of lawsuits. Last week, Kashmir Hill reported at the New York Times, that because Clearview lacks the funds to settle a class action lawsuit it has offered a 23% stake to Americans whose faces are in its database.

As Pierce (The Verge) writes, robots.txt used to represent a fair-enough trade: website owners got search engine visibility in return for their data, and the owners of the crawlers got the data but in return sent traffic.

But AI startups ingesting data to build models don’t offer any benefit in return. Where search engines have traditionally helped people find things on other sites, the owners of AI chatbots want to keep the traffic for themselves. Perplexity bills itself as an “answer engine”. A second key difference is this: none of these businesses are small. As Vladen Joler pointed out last month at CPDP, “AI comes pre-monopolized.” Getting into this area requires billions in funding; by contrast many early Internet businesses started with just a few hundred dollars.

This all feels like a watershed moment for the Internet. For most of its history, as Charles Arthur writes at The Overspill, every advance has exposed another area where the Internet operates on the basis of good faith. Typically, the result is some form of closure – spam, for example, led the operators of mail servers to close to all but authenticated users. It’s not clear to a non-technical person what stronger measure other than copyright law could replace the genteel agreement of robots.txt, but the alternative will likely be closing open access to large parts of the web – a loss to all of us.

Illustrations: Vladen Joler at CPDP 2024, showing his map of the extractive industries required to underpin “AI”.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Review: Money in the Metaverse

Money in the Metaverse: Digital Assets, Online Identities, Spatial Computing, and Why Virtual Worlds Mean Real Business
by David Birch and Victoria Richardson
London Publishing Partnership
ISBN: 978-1-916749-05-4

In my area of London there are two buildings whose architecture unmistakably identifies them as former banks. Time has moved on, and one houses a Pizza Express, the other a Tesco Direct. The obviously-built-to-be-a-Post-Office building, too, is now a restaurant, and the post office itself now occupies a corner of a newsagent’s. They ilustrate a point David Birch has frequently made: there is nothing permanent about our financial arrangements. Banking itself is only a few hundred years old.

Writing with Victoria Richardson, in their new book Money in the Metaverse: Birch argues this point anew. At one time paper notes seemed as shocking and absurd as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens do today. The skeptic reads that and wonders if the early days of paper notes were as rife with fraud and hot air as NFTs have been. Is the metaverse even still a thing? It’s all AI hype round here now.

Birch and Richardson, however, believe that increasingly our lives will be lived online – a flight to the “cyburbs”, they call it. In one of their early examples of our future, they suggest it will be good value to pay for a virtual ticket (NFT) to sit next to a friend to listen to a concert in a virtual auditorium. It may be relevant that they were likely writing this during the acute phase of the covid pandemic. By now, most of the people I zoomed with then are back doing things in the real world and are highly resistant to returning to virtual, or even hybrid, meetups.

But exactly how financial services might operate isn’t really their point and would be hard to get right eve if it were. Instead, their goal is to explain various novel financial technologies and tools such as NFTs, wallets, smart contracts, and digital identities and suggest possible strategies for businesses to use them to build services. Some of the underlying ideas have been around for at least a couple of decades: software agents that negotiate on an individual’s behalf, and support for multiple disconnected identities to be used in the different roles in life we all have, for example. Others are services that seem to have little to do with the metaverse, such as paperless air travel, already being implemented, and virtual tours of travel destination, which have been with us in some form since video arrived on the web.

The key question – whether the metaverse will see mass adoption – is not one Birch and Richardson can answer. Certainly, I’m dubious about some of the use cases they propose – such as the idea of gamifying life insurance by offering reduced premiums to those who reach various thresholds of physical activity or healthy living. Insurance is supposed to manage risk by pooling it; their proposal would penalize disability and illness.

A second question occurs: what new kinds of crime will these technologies enable? Just this week, Fortune reported that cashlessness has brought a new level of crime to Sweden. Why should the metaverse be different? This, too, is beyond the scope of Birch’s and Richardson’s work, which is to explain but not to either hype or critique. The overall impression the book leaves, however, is of a too-clean computer-generated landscape or smart city mockup, where the messiness of real life is missing.

Outbound

As the world and all knows by now, the UK is celebrating this year’s American Independence Day by staging a general election. The preliminaries are mercifully short by US standards, in that the period between the day it was called and the day the winners will be announced is only about six weeks. I thought the announcement would bring more sense of relief than it did. Instead, these six weeks seem interminable for two reasons: first, the long, long wait for the announcement, and second, the dominant driver for votes is largely negative – voting against, rather than voting for.

Labour, which is in polling position to win by a lot, is best served by saying and doing as little as possible, lest a gaffe damage its prospects. The Conservatives seem to be just trying not to look as hopeless as they feel. The only party with much exuberance is the far-right upstart Reform, which measures success in terms of whether it gets a larger share of the vote than the Conservatives and whether Nigel Farage wins a Parliamentary seat on his eighth try. And the Greens, who are at least motivated by genuine passion for their cause, and whose only MP is retiring this year. For them, sadly, success would be replacing her.

Particularly odd is the continuation of the trend visible in recent years for British right-wingers to adopt the rhetoric and campaigning style of the current crop of US Republicans. This week, they’ve been spinning the idea that Labour may win a dangerous “supermajority”. “Supermajority” has meaning in the US, where the balance of powers – presidency, House of Representatives, Senate – can all go in one party’s direction. It has no meaning in the UK, where Parliament is sovereign. All it means is Labour could wind up with a Parliamentary majority so large that they can pass any legislation they want. But this has been the Conservatives’ exact situation for the last five years, ever since the 2019 general election gave Boris Johnson a majority of 86. We should probably be grateful they largely wasted the opportunity squabbling among themselves.

This week saw the launch, day by day, of each party manifesto in turn. At one time, this would have led to extensive analysis and comparisons. This year, what discussion there is focuses on costs: whose platform commits to the most unfunded spending, and therefore who will raise taxes the most? Yet my very strong sense is that few among the electorate are focused on taxes; we’d all rather have public services that work and an end to the cost-of-living crisis. You have to be quite wealthy before private health care offers better value than paying taxes. But here may lie the explanation for both this and the weird Republican-ness of 2024 right-wing UK rhetoric: they’re playing to the same wealthy donors.

In this context, it’s not surprising that there’s not much coverage of what little the manifestos have to say about digital rights or the Internet. The exception is Computer Weekly, which finds the Conservatives promising more of the same and Labour offering a digital infrastructure plan, which includes building data centers and easing various business regulations but not to reintroduce the just-abandoned Data Protection and Digital Information bill.

In the manifesto itself: “Labour will build on the Online Safety Act, bringing forward provisions as quickly as possible, and explore further measures to keep everyone safe online, particularly when using social media. We will also give coroners more powers to access information held by technology companies after a child’s death.” The latter is a reference to recent cases such as that of 14-year-old Molly Russell, whose parents fought for five years to gain access to her Instagram account after her death.

Elsewhere, the manifesto also says, “Too often we see families falling through the cracks of public services. Labour will improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, to better support children and families.”

“A single unique identifier” brings a kind of PTSD flashback: the last Labour government, in power from 1997 to 2010, largely built the centralized database state, and was obsessed with national ID cards, which were finally killed by David Cameron’s incoming coalition government. At the time, one of the purported benefits was streamlining government interaction. So I’m suspicious: this number could easily be backed by biometrics and checked via phone apps on the spot, anywhere and grow into…?

In terms of digital technologies, the LibDems mostly talk about health care, mandating interoperability for NHS systems and improving both care and efficiency. That can only be assessed if the detail is known. Also of interest: the LibDems’ proposed anti-SLAPP law, increasingly needed.

The LibDems also commit to advocate for a “Digital Bill of Rights”. I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble: “digital rights” as a set of civil liberties separate from human rights is antiquated, and many aspects are already enshrined in data protection, competition, and other law. In 2019, under the influence of then-deputy leader Tom Watson, this was a Labour policy. The LibDems are unlikely to have any power; but they lead in my area.

I wish the manifestos mattered and that we could have a sensible public debate about what technology policy should look like and what the priorities should be. But in a climate where everyone votes to get one lot out, the real battle begins on July 5, when we find out what kind of bargain we’ve made.

Illustrations: Polling station in Canonbury, London, in 2019 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Hostages

If you grew up with the slow but predictable schedule of American elections, the abruptness with which a British prime minister can prorogue Parliament and hit the campaign trail is startling. Among the pieces of legislation that fell by the wayside this time is the Data Protection and Digital Information bill, which had reached the House of Lords for scrutiny. The bill had many problems. This was the bill that proposed to give the Department of Work and Pensions the right to inspect the bank accounts and financial assets of anyone receiving any government benefits and undermined aspects of the adequacy agreement that allows UK companies to exchange data with businesses in the EU.

Less famously, it also includes the legislative underpinnings for a trust framework for digital verification. On Monday, at a UCL’s conference on crime science, Sandra Peaston, director of research and development at the fraud prevention organization Cifas, outlined how all this is intended to work and asked some pertinent questions. Among them: whether the new regulator will have enough teeth; whether the certification process is strong enough for (for example) mortgage lenders; and how we know how good the relevant algorithm is at identifying deepfakes.

Overall, I think we should be extremely grateful this bill wasn’t rushed through. Quite apart from the digital rights aspects, the framework for digital identity really needs to be right; there’s just too much risk in getting it wrong.

***

At Bloomberg, Mark Gurman reports that Apple’s arrangement with OpenAI to integrate ChatGPT into the iPhone, iPad, and Mac does not involve Apple paying any money. Instead, Gurman cites unidentified sources to the effect that “Apple believes pushing OpenAI’s brand and technology to hundreds of millions of its devices is of equal or greater value than monetary payments.”

We’ve come across this kind of claim before in arguments between telcos and Internet companies like Netflix or between cable companies and rights holders. The underlying question is who brings more value to the arrangement, or who owns the audience. I can’t help feeling suspicious that this will not end well for users. It generally doesn’t.

***

Microsoft is on a roll. First there was the Recall debacle. Now come accusations by a former employee that it ignored a reported security flaw in order to win a large government contract, as Renee Dudley and Doris Burke report at Pro Publica. Result: the Russian Solarwinds cyberattack on numerous US government departments and agencies, including the National Nuclear Security Administration.

This sounds like a variant of Cory Doctorow’s enshittification at the enterprise level (see also: Boeing). They don’t have to be monopolies: these organizations’ evolving culture has let business managers override safety and security engineers. This is how Challenger blew up in 1986.

Boeing is too big and too lacking in competition to be allowed to fail entirely; it will have to find a way back. Microsoft has a lot of customer lock-in. Is it too big to fail?

***

I can’t help feeling a little sad at the news that Raspberry Pi has had an IPO. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be successful as a commercial enterprise, but its values will inevitably change over time. CEO Eben Upton swears they won’t, but he won’t be CEO forever, as even he admits. But: Raspberry Pi could become the “unicorn” Americans keep saying Europe doesn’t have.

***

At that same UCL event, I finally heard someone say something positive about AI – for a meaning of “AI” that *isn’t* chatbots. Sarah Lawson, the university’s chief information security officer, said that “AI and machine learning have really changed the game” when it comes to detecting email spam, which remains the biggest vector for attacks. Dealing with the 2% that evades the filters is still a big job, as it leaves 6,000 emails a week hitting people’s inboxes – but she’ll take it. We really need to be more specific when we say “AI” about what kind of system we mean; success at spam filtering has nothing to say about getting accurate information out of a large language model.

***

Finally, I was highly amused this week when long-time security guy Nick Selby, posted on Mastodon about a long-forgotten incident from 1999 in which I disparaged the sort of technology Apple announced this week that’s supposed to organize your life for you – tell you when it’s time to leave for things based on the traffic, juggle meetings and children’s violin recitals, that sort of thing. Selby felt I was ahead of my time because “it was stupid then and is stupid now because even if it works the cost is insane and the benefit really, really dodgy”,

One of the long-running divides in computing is between the folks who want computers to behave predictably and those who want computers to learn from our behavior what’s wanted and do that without intervention. Right now, the latter is in ascendance. Few of us seem to want the “AI features” being foisted on us. But only a small percentage of mainstream users turn off defaults (a friend was recently surprised to learn you can use the history menu to reopen a closed browser tab). So: soon those “AI features” will be everywhere, pointlessly and extravagantly consuming energy, water, and human patience. How you use information technology used to be a choice. Now, it feels like we’re hostages.

Illustrations: Raspberry Pi: the little computer that could (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Soap dispensers and Skynet

In the TV series Breaking Bad, the weary ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut tells meth chemist Walter White : “No more half measures.” The last time he took half measures, the woman he was trying to protect was brutally murdered.

Apparently people like to say there are no dead bodies in privacy (although this is easily countered with ex-CIA director General Michael Hayden’s comment, “We kill people based on metadata”). But, as Woody Hartzog told a Senate committee hearing in September 2023, summarizing work he did with Neil Richards and Ryan Durrie, half measures in AI/privacy legislation are still a bad thing.

A discussion at Privacy Law Scholars last week laid out the problems. Half measures don’t work. They don’t prevent societal harms. They don’t prevent AI from being deployed where it shouldn’t be. And they sap the political will to follow up with anything stronger.

In an article for The Brink, Hartzog said, “To bring AI within the rule of law, lawmakers must go beyond half measures to ensure that AI systems and the actors that deploy them are worthy of our trust,”

He goes on to list examples of half measures: transparency, committing to ethical principles, and mitigating bias. Transparency is good, but doesn’t automatically bring accountability. Ethical principles don’t change business models. And bias mitigation to make a technology nominally fairer may simultaneously make it more dangerous. Think facial recognition: debias the system and improve its accuracy for matching the faces of non-male, non-white people, and then it’s used to target those same people with surveillance.

Or, bias mitigation may have nothing to do with the actual problem, an underlying business model, as Arvind Narayanan, author of the forthcoming book AI Snake Oil, pointed out a few days later at an event convened by the Future of Privacy Forum. In his example, the Washington Post reported in 2019 on the case of an algorithm intended to help hospitals predict which patients will benefit from additional medical care. It turned out to favor white patients. But, Narayanan said, the system’s provider responded to the story by saying that the algorithm’s cost model accurately predicted the costs of additional health care – in other words, the algorithm did exactly what the hospital wanted it to do.

“I think hospitals should be forced to use a different model – but that’s not a technical question, it’s politics.”.

Narayanan also called out auditing (another Hartzog half measure). You can, he said, audit a human resources system to expose patterns in which resumes it flags for interviews and which it drops. But no one ever commissions research modeled on the expensive random controlled testing common in medicine that follows up for five years to see if the system actually picks good employees.

Adding confusion is the fact that “AI” isn’t a single thing. Instead, it’s what someone called a “suitcase term” – that is, a container for many different systems built for many different purposes by many different organizations with many different motives. It is absurd to conflate AGI – the artificial general intelligence of science fiction stories and scientists’ dreams that can surpass and kill us all – with pattern-recognizing software that depends on plundering human-created content and the labeling work of millions of low-paid workers

To digress briefly, some of the AI in that suitcase is getting truly goofy. Yum Brands has announced that its restaurants, which include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, will be “AI-first”. Among Yum’s envisioned uses, the company tells Benj Edwards at Ars Technica, are being able to ask an app what temperature to set the oven. I can’t help suspecting that the real eventual use will be data collection and discriminatory pricing. Stuff like this is why Ed Zitron writes postings like The Rot-Com Bubble, which hypothesizes that the reason Internet services are deteriorating is that technology companies have run out of genuinely innovative things to sell us.

That you cannot solve social problems with technology is a long-held truism, but it seems to be especially true of the messy middle of the AI spectrum, the use cases active now that rarely get the same attention as the far ends of that spectrum.

As Neil Richards put it at PLSC, “The way it’s presented now, it’s either existential risk or a soap dispenser that doesn’t work on brown hands when the real problem is the intermediate level of societal change via AI.”

The PLSC discussion included a list of the ways that regulations fail. Underfunded enforcement. Regulations that are pure theater. The wrong measures. The right goal, but weakly drafted legislation. Make the regulation ambiguous, or base it on principles that are too broad. Choose conflicting half-measures – for example, require transparency but add the principle that people should own their own data.

Like Cristina Caffarra a week earlier at CPDP, Hartzog, Richards, and Durrie favor finding remedies that focus on limiting abuses of power. Full measures include outright bans, the right to bring a private cause of action, imposing duties of “loyalty, care, and confidentiality”, and limiting exploitative data practices within these systems. Curbing abuses of power, as he says, is nothing new. The shiny new technology is a distraction.

Or, as Narayanan put it, “Broken AI is appealing to broken institutions.”

Illustrations: Mike (Jonathan Banks) telling Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad (S03e12) “no more half measures”.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Admiring the problem

In one sense, the EU’s barely dry AI Act and the other complex legislation – the Digital Markets Act, Digital Services Act, GDPR, and so on -= is a triumph. Flawed it may be, but it’s a genuine attempt to protect citizens’ human rights against a technology that is being birthed with numerous trigger warnings. The AI-with-everything program at this year’s Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection, reflected that sense of accomplishment – but also the frustration that comes with knowing that all legislation is flawed, all technology companies try to game the system, and gaps will widen.

CPDP has had these moments before: new legislation always comes with a large dollop of frustration over the opportunities that were missed and the knowledge that newer technologies are already rushing forwards. AI, and the AI Act, more or less swallowed this year’s conference as people considered what it says, how it will play internationally, and the necessary details of implementation and enforcement. Two years at this event, inadequate enforcement of GDPR was a big topic.

The most interesting future gaps that emerged this year: monopoly power, quantum sensing, and spatial computing.

For at least 20 years we’ve been hearing about quantum computing’s potential threat to public key encryption – that day of doom has been ten years away as long as I can remember, just as the Singularity is always 30 years away. In the panel on quantum sensing, Chris Hoofnagle argued that, as he and Simson Garfinkel recently wrote at Lawfare and in their new book, quantum cryptanalysis is overhyped as a threat (although there are many opportunities for quantum computing in chemistry and materials science). However, quantum sensing is here now, works (because qubits are fragile), and is cheap. There is plenty of privacy threat here to go around: quantum sensing will benefit entirely different classes of intelligence, particularly remote, undetectable surveillance.

Hoofnagle and Garfinkel are calling this MASINT, for machine and signature intelligence, and believe that it will become very difficult to hide things, even at a national level. In Hoofnagle’s example, a quantum sensor-equipped drone could fly over the homes of parolees to scan for guns.

Quantum sensing and spatial computing have this in common: they both enable unprecedented passive data collection. VR headsets, for example, collect all sorts of biomechanical data that can be mined more easily for personal information than people expect.

Barring change, all that data will be collected by today’s already-powerful entities.

The deeper level on which all this legislation fails particularly exercised Cristina Caffarra, the co-founder of the Centre for Economic Policy Research in the panel on AI and monopoly, saying that all this legislation is basically nibbling around the edges because they do not touch the real, fundamental problem of the power being amassed by the handful of companies who own the infrastructure.

“It’s economics 101. You can have as much downstream competition as you like but you will never disperse the power upstream.” The reports and other material generated by government agencies like the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority are, she says, just “admiring the problem”.

A day earlier, the Novi Sad professor Vladen Joler had already pointed out the fundamental problem: at the dawn of the Internet anyone could start with nothing and build something; what we’re calling “AI” requires billions in investment, so comes pre-monopolized. Many people dismiss Europe for not having its own homegrown Big Tech, but that overlooks open technologies: the Raspberry Pi, Linux, and the web itself, which all have European origins.

In 2010, the now-departing MP Robert Halfon (Con-Harlow) said at an event on reining in technology companies that only a company the size of Google – not even a government – could create Street View. Legend has it that open source geeks heard that as a challenge, and so we have OpenStreetMap. Caffarra’s fiery anger raises the question: at what point do the infrastructure providers become so entrenched that they could choke off an open source competitor at birth? Caffarra wants to build a digital public interest infrastructure using the gaps where Big Tech doesn’t yet have that control.

The Dutch Groenlinks MEP Kim van Sparrentak offered an explanation for why the AI Act doesn’t address market concentration: “They still dream of a European champion who will rule the world.” An analogy springs to mind: people who vote for tax cuts for billionaires because one day that might be *them*. Meanwhile, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority finds nothing to investigate in Microsoft’s partnership with the French AI startup Mistral.

Van Sparrentak thinks one way out is through public procurement; adopt goals of privacy and sustainability, and support European companies. It makes sense; as the AI Now Institute’s Amba Kak, noted, at the moment almost everything anyone does digitally has to go through the systems of at least one Big Tech company.

As Sebastiano Toffaletti, head of the secretariat of the European SME Alliance, put it, “Even if you had all the money in the world, these guys still have more data than you. If you don’t and can’t solve it, you won’t have anyone to challenge these companies.”

Illustrations: Vladen Joler shows Anatomy of an AI System, a map he devised with Kate Crawford of the human labor, data, and planetary resources that are extracted to make “AI”.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Microsoft can remember it for you wholesale

A new theory: somewhere in the Silicon Valley universe there’s a cadre of techies who have eidetic memories and they’re feeling them start to slip. Panic time.

That’s my best explanation for Microsoft’s latest wheeze, a new feature for its Copilot assistant that will take what’s variously called a “snapshot” or a “screenshot” of your computer (all three monitors?) every five seconds and store it for future reference. Microsoft hasn’t explained much about Recall’s inner technical workings, but according to the announcement, the data will be stored locally and will be searchable via semantic associations and some sort of “AI”. Microsoft also says the data will not be used to train AI models.

The general anger and dismay at this plan brings back, almost nostalgically, memories of the 1990s, when Microsoft was near-universally hated as the evil monopolist dominating computing. In 2008, when Google was ten years old, a BBC presenter asked me if I thought Google would ever be hated as much as Microsoft was (not then, no). In 2012, veteran journalist Charles Arthur published the book Digital Wars about how Microsoft had stagnated and lost its lead. And then suddenly, in the last few years, it’s back on top.

Possibilities occur that Microsoft doesn’t mention. For example: could software might be embedded into Windows to draw inferences from the data Recall saves? And could those inferences be forwarded to the company or used to target you with ads? That seems like a far more efficient way to invade users’ privacy than copying the data itself, if that’s what the company ultimately wants to do.

Lots of things on our computers already retain a “memory” of what we’ve been doing. Operating systems generate logs to help debug problems. Word processors retain a changelog, which powers the ability to undo mistakes. Web browsers have user-configurable histories; email software has archives; media players retain playlists. All of those are useful – but part of that usefulness is that they are contextual, limited, and either easily terminated by closing the relevant application or relatively easily edited to remove items that shouldn’t be kept.

It’s hard for almost everyone who isn’t Microsoft to understand the point of keeping everything by default. It seems like a feature only developers could love. I certainly would like Windows to be better at searching for stored files or my (Firefox) browser to be better at reloading that article I was reading yesterday. I have even longed for a personal version of Vannevar Bush’s Memex. As part of that, I might welcome a feature that let me hit a button to record the last five useful minutes of a meeting, or save a social media post to a local archive. But the key to that sort of memory expansion is curation, not remembering everything promiscuously. For most people, selective forgetting is how we survive the torrents of irrelevance hurled at us every day.

What Recall sounds most like is the lifelog science fiction writer Charlie Stross imagined in 2007 might be our future. Plummeting storage costs and expanding capacity, he reasoned, would make it possible to store *everything* in your pocket. Even then, there were (a very few) people doing that sort of thing, most notably Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor who started wearing devices to comprhensively capture his life as a 1990s graduate student. Over the years, Mann has shrunk his personal gadget array from a laptop and peripherals to glasses and pocket devices. Many more people capture their surroundings now – but they do it on their phones. If Apple or Google were proposing a Recall feature for iOS or Android, the idea would seem a lot less weird.

The real issue is that there are many people who would like to be able to know what somone *else* has been doing on their computer at all times. Helicopter parents. Schools and teachers under government compulsion (see for example Prevent (PDF)). Employers. Border guards. Corporate spies. The Department of Work and Pensions. Authoritarian governments. Law enforcement and security agencies. Criminals. Domestic abusers… So developing any feature like this must include considering how to protect it against these threats. This does not appear to have happened.

Many others have written about the privacy issues in all this – the UK’s Information Commission’s Office is already investigating. At The Register, Richard Speed does a particularly good job of looking at some of the fine details. On Mastodon, Kevin Beaumont says inspection of the Copilot+ software suggests that Recall stores the text it extracts from all those snapshots into an easily copiable SQlite database.

But there’s still more. The kind of archive Recall appears to construct can teach an attacker how the target thinks: not just what passwords they choose but how they devise them.Those patterns can be highly valuable. Granted, few targets are worth that level of attention, but it happens, as Peter Davies, a technical director at eThales, has often warned.

Recall is not the only move – see also flawed-AI-with-everything – that suggests that the computer industry, like some politicians and governments, is badly losing touch with the public. Increasingly, what they want to do seems unrelated to what the rest of us want. If they think things like Recall are a good idea they need to read more Philip K. Dick. And then don’t invent the Torment Nexus.

Illustrations: Arnold Schwarzenegger seeking better memories in the 1990 film Total Recall.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon..