The end of private reading is nigh

This morning’s Observer column about the Investigatory Powers bill:

The draft bill proposes that henceforth everyone’s clickstream – the URLs of every website one visits – is to be collected and stored for 12 months and may be inspected by agents of the state under certain arrangements. But collecting the stream will be done without any warrant. To civil libertarians who are upset by this new power, the government’s response boils down to this: “Don’t worry, because we’re just collecting the part of the URL that specifies the web server and that’s just ‘communications data’ (aka metadata); we’re not reading the content of the pages you visit, except under due authorisation.”

This is the purest cant, for two reasons…

Read on

To MI5 with love

The Economist‘s succinct summary of the draft investigatory Powers bill:

The government has been caught between the civil-liberties lobby and the intelligence agencies, with much dancing back and forth in the press over the past few weeks, but has come down on the side of the spies. It is in agreement with the public: a recent YouGov poll found Britons think spies should be given more powers (perhaps reasoning that Tesco knows more about them than MI5 ever will). Though civil-liberties groups, empowered by the information leaked by Edward Snowden, are louder than ever, the government has decided to speak for its intelligence agencies, who cannot speak for themselves.

I agree with everything here, except the last clause. Clearly the Economist hasn’t been reading the right-wing press, or listening to the spooks’ charm offensive on the media in the months leading up to publication of the draft bill.

US foreign policy in a nutshell

From Bill Moyers:

“ISIS is seen in Washington as a grave terrorist threat with the potential to knock over the unpopular and unstable regimes of the Middle East (i.e., our client states) like bowling pins. Yet the Washington Consensus sees as the key to defeating ISIS the undermining of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS’s principal military enemy. If a US general in 1942 declared the only way to defeat the Wehrmacht would be for us to fight Nazi Germany and the USSR simultaneously, he would have been committed to a lunatic asylum.”

Amazon’s Cloud Nine

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1999, Andy Grove, then the CEO of Intel, was widely ridiculed for declaring that “in five years’ time there won’t be any internet companies. All companies will be internet companies or they will be dead.” What he meant was that anybody who aspired to be in business in 2004 would have to deal with the internet in one way or another, just as they relied on electricity. And he was right; that’s what a GPT is like: it’s pervasive.

But digital technology differs in four significant ways from earlier GPTs. First of all, it is characterised by zero – or near-zero – marginal costs: once you’ve made the investment needed to create a digital good, it costs next to nothing to roll out and distribute a million (or indeed a billion) copies. Second, digital technology can exploit network effects at much greater speeds than the GPTs of the past. Third, almost everything that goes on in digital networks is governed by so-called power law distributions, in which a small number of actors (sites, companies, publishers…) get most of the action, while everyone else languishes in a “long tail”. Finally, digital technology sometimes gives rise to technological “lock-in”, where the proprietary standards of one company become the de facto standards for an entire industry. Thus, Microsoft once had that kind of lock-in on the desktop computer market: if you wanted to be in business you could have any kind of computer you wanted – so long as it ran Windows…

Read on

LATER Just came on this — which makes the same point about Amazon’s AWS, only more forcefully.

Two cheers for the Librarian of Congress

Sometimes the Librarian of Congress does the right thing:

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues new rules on Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemptions. Acting Librarian David Mao, in an order (PDF) released Tuesday, authorized the public to tinker with software in vehicles for “good faith security research” and for “lawful modification.”

The decision comes in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, in which the German automaker baked bogus code into its software that enabled the automaker’s diesel vehicles to reduce pollutants below acceptable levels during emissions tests.

“I am glad they granted these exemptions,” said Sherwin Siy, vice president for legal affairs for Public Knowledge in Washington, DC. “I am not glad it was necessary for them to do so in the first place.”

The auto industry, and even the Environmental Protection Agency, opposed the vehicle-tinkering rules that were proposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. About every 36 months, the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office entertain proposals for exemptions to the DMCA, which was passed in 1998. The DMCA prohibits circumventing encryption or access controls to copy or modify copyrighted works. The ultimate decision rests with the Librarian of Congress.