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Turning Off the Internet: Protest Edition (links)

Egypt: ‘If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet’.  “Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who has became a symbol of Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising after he launched the original Facebook page credited with sparking the initial protest, called the Egyptian upheaval, ‘Revolution 2.0.'”  (via Wired)

Libya: ‘Shutting off the Internet seems to be one of the last things in the playbook in terms of a dictator that’s being threatened by uprisings.’ “In particular, an Internet blackout in Libya will make it tougher for people outside the country to know how the uprising is unfolding. That was likely the government’s main motivation in shutting down the Internet in a country where people are more likely to communicate using cell phones.” (via MSNBC)

Algeria: ‘The government doesn’t want us forming crowds through the internet.’ “The Algerian government later denied that access to the internet or social networking websites had suffered any disruption or restriction on its part. A spokesman for the Algerian Embassy in London dismissed the claim as ‘baseless’. Meanwhile Facebook said there was no evidence of notable disruptions to their service, nor of accounts being deleted.  But a spokesman for Algerian internet monitor Remyses said: ‘It is possible that the blockages of the internet were not visible from abroad, according to the Iranian ‘strangulation’ model or by the cutting of domestic connections.'” (via The Telegraph)

Tunisia: ‘The problem is not filtering, the problem is who filters and based on what law.’ “At first, the regime banned around 300 websites, but as internet use grew throughout the country –- from 1 percent of the population in 2000 to 37 percent as of last November –- the blacklist bloated to more than 2,000. When the government started going after proxies, Saadaoui said, the number jumped to many thousands. He estimated that around a thousand of the blocked sites were political, and the rest were proxies.” (via Wired)

Wisconsin: a violation of free speech? : “Former Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Charles Hoornstra said that, if Walker is blocking the website, it could be a violation of state and federal laws concerning free speech laws. The accusation by the Wisconsin Democratic Party accompanies an accusation by the Teaching Assistants Association that Wisconsin state authorities cut off wifi access to a room they had taken over as a headquarters inside of the Capitol.” (via ThinkProgress)

See also: Egypt and the Internet (RWX)

The Walled Garden Problem

Wired Magazine declares the web dead.

Magazine publishers were excited when Apple introduced the iPad. There were all sorts of plans for i-publishing ventures – a new generation of digital magazines that would look better than the web and were more portable than laptops. Then the iPad launched and publishers were screwed. Sure you could sell a digital copy of a magazine. But there was no option to buy subscriptions.

Single-copy sales on newsstands are not what drives magazine revenues, and it quickly became clear that single i-copies wouldn’t do it for the tablet world either. Wired went from selling 100,000 copies of its first iPad edition to 30,000 in just a few months.

So Apple has now launched a subscription scheme. While publishers can set their own prices and terms, Apple takes 30 percent. Publishers can sell their own subscriptions elsewhere, but Apple won’t let them sell subs for less than what they cost in the  iTunes store. And customers going through iTunes will be able to decide how much of their demographic data is shared with publishers.

The problems with this deal have been much discussed elsewhere. Apple’s 30 percent is excessive. Dictating price to publishers selling outside the Apple store puts a lot of control in Apple’s hands. And no publisher wants to give up control of subscriber info, which, in some ways, is the most valuable asset publishers have.

Apple’s overreach may or may not work. iTunes has a huge lead in selling digital products. But Google has jumped in with a subscription plan that offers a more favorable deal, and others will follow.

There’s a larger issue.

One of the reasons the internet “works” is because “everything” speaks to one another and is accessible. Our browsers go almost anywhere. But with everything accessible, it’s been difficult to charge for content; so much choice means that people have alternatives to paid content. This has upended traditional publishing business models.

Apple’s app market suggests this problem can be solved. Apps don’t talk universally. They offer content or services that can’t generally be accessed from the outside. They often only work on proprietary devices. Publishers can charge not only for the app, but also for the content, and the iTunes app store experience suggests that consumers will pay.

More and more pieces of what would formerly have been on the net are now finding refuge behind these walled gardens. Facebook, for example, while it’s great for pulling in links and content from the outside, is not much accessible from the outside, and Facebook controls privacy and dictates rules of interaction and who owns your content. Twitter can be displayed on the net, but it too decides rules of the road. Last week, for example, Twitter shut out the UberTwitter and Twidroyd applications after supposed policy violations. Apple regularly declines to allow apps it doesn’t like into its app store. And the iPad, as marvelous as it is, is frustrating as hell when you try to get content in or out if Apple hasn’t approved it.

Digital rights management (DRM) was an attempt to control distribution of content, but it irritates consumers, and many resist. Somehow, though, apps (which are even more restrictive in how they allow sharing) seem to be more acceptable with users.

As we become more digitally mobile, more and more content is being moved behind app walls, and mobile carriers are fighting to control content. In the recent net neutrality battles, some of the big providers were willing to concede neutrality for the traditional web as they pushed to be able to control the flow of data on mobile networks. If the future is mobile (and it is), then there’s a lot of power (and money) to be made on who decides what gets delivered and how.

The online world, which has been an untamed, Wild West in which anyone with access could play, may be evolving into an app-driven model with walls everywhere you turn. This more closely resembles the physical world in which access is controlled by those with the power and resources to pay for it.

One of the great things about the internet was that it democratized access to ideas and information, simply because it spoke a common language. But on such an internet where content moves freely, charging for content is more problematic.

Digital subscriptions are seductive for publishers looking to be more profitable. Apps might be attractive to consumers wanting higher quality products and experiences. But apps – and the app stores that regulate the transactions and offerings – are beginning to change the nature of digital content and who can produce, distribute and see it. Maybe this was inevitable. A Wired cover story last August declared that the web is dead. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. But we ought to spend a little time thinking about what that next thing looks like.

Q&A: Helen Brunner

artist advocate, media policy connector, social justice champion, and Director of the Media Democracy Fund.

What’s the piece of news this week that is forefront on your mind when you think about technology, policy, and the arts?

It’s hard with what is going on internationally not to think about the situation in Egypt.  The notion that something like the Internet could be turned “off” so to speak is surprising to many people. It’s also fascinating to see how quickly local activists and the International human rights community worked together to find ways around the closed communications environment using the intersections of different technologies, such as the Google phone line for calling in and listening to tweets with #Egypt.

Why do you think this issue is relevant to the arts community?

Freedom of expression and access to information and knowledge are core necessities for artists. Art is also the realm where many differing or even warring parties can connect, and sometimes even negotiate across differences.

It’s critical for the arts community to understand how fragile and open to manipulation these technologies are.

What are some exciting things happening in the nonprofit arts sector with respect to technology and/or policy?

I’m inspired by artists who use technology in innovative ways to either make or distribute their work – and some who have learned how to earn a living from their work. Technology is just another tool, or form of pencil if you will. As new technologies develop, the work tends to become more complex and not just about the attributes of the particular technology.

Why are they exciting to you?

New forms create new ways to understand the world, and old forms being distributed more widely also creates a richer world to live in. The global connections among artists are exciting, and new networks or efforts seem to pop up every day. There will be new ways for organizations to exist – ones that may be more effective or at least expand the resources available for artists. Audiences and communities can participate more deeply and the lines between the maker and the viewer are blurring in increasingly exciting ways. The potential is extraordinary, although I would never suggest that technology is cure to all problems.

What do you see as a major challenge for the arts sector with respect to technology and copyright policy?

It’s a complex area and the rules are hard to understand. The laws are out of date and the approaches to revising them are becoming more draconian.

I am concerned that artists are not aware of or engaged as much as they need to be in the public policy side, in monitoring and trying to influence the behavior of companies that control the distribution platforms.

Now that convergence is actually here, people are beginning to experience the ubiquitous nature of digital communication. They have yet to understand the need to create rules of the road to protect their interests.  Situations like Egypt are a wake up call. Many people I’ve spoken with are absolutely stunned that the Internet could just be taken away.

While we have a long way to go in engaging the non profit arts sector as deeply as they need to be, I think they are becoming much more aware of the ways in which policy will affect their ability to make, distribute, document and earn a living from their work, through the work of organizations like NAMAC, Public Knowledge, and Future of Music Coalition.

Do you have a latest toy that you’re playing with that you’d like to comment on?

Kind of silly but I finally jail broke my iPhone so traveling internationally I can use a local SIM card. It’s a simple thing, but point to the draconian control that incumbent mobile carriers have in the US over basic phone communications.

Anything you are working on that you would like to share?

I am really excited about the work of the MDF grantees, and since there are 27 of them it is hard to go into too much detail. Would love to encourage folks to look at our grants list at and click on the links.  I’m also excited to go to Dakar tomorrow for the World Social Forum.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with the global communications rights movement and see the arts and culture work being done there.

Follow MDF’s Work: Website, Twitter, Facebook

Seven links about Egypt and the Internet (previously “Four links…)

Yes, Egypt left the internet. “This is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow. The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.” (via Renesys)

How exactly did they turn it off? “But how did the government actually do it? Is there a big kill switch inside Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s office? Do physical cables have to be destroyed? Can a lockdown like this work?” (via Gigaom).  Update 1/31: Apparently, with a series of phone calls (via Wired) and not cutting the actual cables (via Ars Technica)

How activists are getting around this limitation… “[B]asically, there are three ways of getting information out right now — get access to the Noor ISP (which has about 8 percent of the market), use a land line to call someone, or use dial-up” (via Computerworld)

…and protecting themselves from retaliation? “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software, which helps activists protect their identity from surveillance by repressive regimes and get around blocked sites.” (via Boston Herald)

Update 1/31: Could it happen in the US? “My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency,” Collins said in an e-mail Friday. “It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.” (also via Wired)

Four Takes on Comcast + NBC Universal

Wondering about the NBC Universal-Comcast merger?  Well, Senator Al Franken and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps think it’s a complete disaster.  A lot of others are scratching their heads as they sort through the incredibly complex deal.  Here are four links to get you started.

We’ll start with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps’ statement.

The Comcast-NBCU joint venture opens the door to the cable-ization of the open Internet. The potential for walled gardens, toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production is now very real.

As for the future of America’s news and journalism, I see nothing in this deal to address the fundamental damage that has been inflicted by years of outrageous consolidation and newsroom cuts. Investigative journalism is not even a shell of its former self. All of this means it’s more difficult for citizens to hold the powerful accountable. It means thousands of stories go unwritten. It means we never hear about untold instances of business corruption, political graft and other chicanery; it also means we don’t hear enough about all the good things taking place in our country every day.

The slight tip of the hat that the applicants have made toward some very limited support of local media projects does not even begin to address the core of the problem. Given that this merger will make the joint venture a steward of the public’s airwaves as a broadcast licensee, I asked for a major commitment of its resources to beef up the news operation at NBC. That request was not taken seriously. Increasing the quantity of news by adding hours of programming is no substitute for improving the quality of news by devoting the necessary resources.

Make no mistake: what is at stake here is the infrastructure for our national conversation—the very lifeblood of American democracy. We should be moving in precisely the opposite direction of what this Commission approves today.

The New York Times on the basics of the deal.  Ars Technica: “The size of the deal leaves mere mortals reaching for thesauri”

Senator Al Franken (D-MN): “This is the first time the FCC has allowed discrimination on the internet” (video)

an ArtsJournal blog