Category: Thoughts

White European Males, GamerGate and DongleGate

First things first, a disclaimer:

  1. I don’t condone, nor I accept any form of harassment, physical, verbal or electronic.
  2. I don’t mix technical qualities with life situations. Your choices, opinions, abilities and disabilities may affect the quality of your work, but this is not about those, but about the result: your work.
  3. I don’t promote abusive behaviour as a form of getting your point across, even if no abusive intention was meant.
  4. I do promote inclusion in STEM to balance towards the real proportion in society.
  5. Both GamerGate and DongleGate were disasters on their own, for very different reasons. I want neither to happen.
  6. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and see things more black and white than most people. I cannot accept qualitative features being used for quantitative purposes. None of this is meant as an offence, or to explain or validate harassment, abuse or any other unethical behaviour. It’s just an analysis.

What was

When Charles Babbage begun creating his analytical machine, he was worried about the hardware and the implications of it for mathematics and the world. But we all know that hardware is only as good as its software, and so Ada Lovelace’s work was of equal importance on that critical milestone. Both of them were mathematicians of an elite that weren’t thoroughly recognised until much later. Both were extremely methodical, eccentric and disconnected from reality. All well known characteristics that Hans Asperger recognised circa 1920 as what we now know as autism.

In the 40’s to 60’s, only really brilliant mathematicians could understand computing, mostly because they were just developing it, but thousands of men and women took part in building and using them. At that time, the proportion of people “using computers” was closer to the social distribution than it is today. However, the number of people working “with computers” was independent of their understanding of the underlying technology. Naturally, the distribution then follows the source group’s own. But after the first real case for general computing (WWII), the world was left with a tool that could do so much more, and people realised that they needed to take it to the next level.

Still too many people were clueless as to how computers worked, and a huge effort was made to get people “into computing”. But the importance and prevalence of computing those days were inexistent, so the appeal to the general public, men and women, were close to zero. The kind of people that felt attracted by it then, and during the 70’s and 80’s were the same groups as Babbage, Lovelace, Turin: people in the autistic spectrum. This is not to say that non-autistic people did’t do it, or worse, that they couldn’t do it. On the contrary, the proof that this is not an autistic-only field is today’s proliferation of computer scientists around the world, regardless of their mental status, gender, race or culture.

During the 70’s, computers had specific purposes, and only universities and very big companies had them. The 80’s saw the first boom in “personal” computing, but it was still dominated by self-built kits, and those like me that remember that time fondly, know how much of a weirdo we were in the eyes of the general population. While more people were taking on computing careers, those experimenting at home still had a clear autistic predisposition.

It was only in the 90’s, when Bill Gates became a millionaire, that people started giving “some” credit to the field, and personal computing toppled and then completely replaced mainframes. During the 80’s, operating systems were developed for the common tasks like word editing, spreadsheets and simple databases, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that most people had one in their homes and small shops. It became ubiquitous only then.

But even in the 90’s, all the attempts to simplify programming (Logo? Basic?) couldn’t really help you do much with computers. They were (and still are) basically toys. So, people that learnt Basic have realised early on that they couldn’t write anything meaningful and would either have to delve deep into C, or give up completely. That was still promoting those of the more autistic disposition to stay and the rest to find something more interesting to do.

The niche

But as with every spectrum, thresholds are biased.

If you understand a bit about autism, you know that all we want is to be left alone to our own devices. Don’t come to my house telling me what to do and how. This is most upsetting for autistic people and you will be faced with some unintentional harsh responses due to the genetic reasons that autistic people cannot control or fix.

Autistic people were *always* banned from social life for thousands of years (maybe more?), and since ever they tried to group into segregated societies, often characterised with bigotry and rudeness, not uncommonly harassment. The Royal Society was such a place, and not unlike the current computer science scenario, was dominated by “White European Males“.

It seems obvious to me that the “White European” part is easily explained because of the degree of development that Europe had at the time (1600’s), compared to everywhere else in the world. The parallel with modern computer scientists is clear: North America and Western Europe have a much higher rate of Caucasians well educated and positioned in society, for obvious reasons that don’t fit this text to discuss, than the other groups.

When a field is new and needs pressure to get to, most of the people that will get in will be of a similar disposition. In the same way that most voluntary army cadets will have a similar mentality. I would never be an army volunteer, but I was a computer enthusiast since I was 5 years old.

Recent studies have shown that the proportion of males and females in high-functioning autistic people (the ones that like to solve complex problems for fun) is 4:1. But boys and girls behave very differently, with boys having a lot more physically and verbally violent games, and girls being more sensitive. With a start ratio of 4:1, it’s not hard how that biased self-selection can get to 10:1 or more.

What has become

But after the initial self-balancing, true bigots and abusers (trolls), saw the chance to belong to a society that was professing, for completely different reasons, that different people be kept out. I hope it’s clear enough that high-functioning autistic people have a valid and important reason to keep people out of their lives and groups. Otherwise, they cannot function properly.

Moreover, autistic people have the tendency of responding badly to social pressure, and that includes behaviour that is often misinterpreted as harassment, bullying and violent. It is not uncommon to see very drastic ends to really sad stories.

Autistic people also have a higher than usual rate of trusting people, and therefore much more easily abused by trolls, who will become part of a community and extend their modus operandi, but not necessarily their intention.

People on less advantageous backgrounds (wealth, disabilities, minorities, life choices) had even less chances of getting in a club that was trying to keep people out. But with trolls inside, they’ll make sure this becomes impossible, and that’s how situations like GamerGate happen.

It is important to separate the original cause of aggregation and demand for separation, sometimes aggressively, as a classic high-functioning autistic process, from the subsequent harassment and directed intentional aggression that trolls had after they took over well meaning but fearful and trusting mostly autistic people.

That fact, however, does not condone any aggression, including from autistic people. But what people have to understand is that, if the aggression comes from an autistic person, even high-functioning, they very likely cannot control it and need help. Being offended is ok, but reserving the right to then discharge your own contained aggression, even if you are a minority, is not the way to solve this.

We all have problems, but turning off your care-meter because you are a minority and have just being offended is not ok. And that includes autistic people, too.

Why is this important?

Because computer science has moved on from the nerd-zone for at least 20 years, but much more so in the last 10.

Nowadays there are a huge number of architectures, languages, tools, spare parts and they’re all accessible to a huge chunk of the world to play with. It is not a mostly autistic activity any more, and there are languages (like Python, Java, Haskell, Go, Swift, even JavaScript and Scratch) and hardware (like RaspberryPi, Arduino, Mindstorms) which allow you to do amazing things very easily.

The barrier into technology is so low now that anyone can enter, and once they’re in, they don’t need to be autistic to enjoy. Furthermore, neurotypical people can be as good (or better) than autistic people even in the hardest of problems. After all, being high-functioning autistic doesn’t mean you’re smarter, just means you want to do something that keep you away from people, and talking to machines is the best thing I can think of.

So nowadays we have all kinds of people, and with that, we’re back to the real distribution that societies have. All minorities are now represented by what they are in society. But trolls are haters, and they know some very cunning ways to keep unwanted people around, mostly using subversive tactics like physical, verbal and social abuse, doxing, DDoSing, etc.

We need to remove the trolls from our societies together. This is not a minorities vs majorities fight, this is a fight for the right to be safe. The new minorities have as much right to be safe as the original minority who created the space. And both minorities have the right to be represented, but so does the majorities. The only thing we want to get rid of are the trolls.

What we should move towards

So, autistic people want a space of their own, trolls take over, destroy the Internet. Minorities try to participate, trolls shoot them down, behave like assholes. What else is news? As it all started in the 40’s, we need a compatible distribution with the rest of society. The very definition of minority is that there is less of. So it makes no sense to expect an equal distribution of minority and majority on each specific scale.

For instance, on average worldwide, we have half men, half women. So I would expect the same distribution in STEM subjects. We may be far from it in computer science and physics, but not in biology or chemistry. It’s still not 50/50, so we can’t take each topic to be exactly 50/50, but we can expect the whole STEM subjects to be around that ballpark.

Of the world population, at a glance I see 18% is Han Chinese, while about two thirds of that is “European”, and a third of each Arabic, Hindu and African, living all over the world. The real distribution doesn’t matter much, but I’d expect a similar distribution for STEM in the same way.

Now, getting there will involve two distinct activities:

  1. Deep grass root movements to increase the development and literacy of impoverished communities, education of better off communities regarding equality and inclusion.
  2. Improve STEM inclusion and attractiveness for all members of society, as well as remove the exclusion characteristics (trolls) of the already existing community.

People that are keen on seen global equality (1) have to fight that battle outside of STEM subjects. The fights you should have inside are those that discriminate minorities that can already be represented in STEM subjects (2).

For example, all the feminists advocate for inclusion in open source communities already have the will and ability to participate on equal grounds as men. The fact that someone is gay or transgender makes absolutely no difference in a STEM community and should bear no value in inclusion or acceptance. The fact that they are not included is a horrible mistake and has to be fixed inside STEM communities.

We should move towards STEM communities that have a relevant distribution as far as STEM can have on its own. We’re not looking for equal numbers of all minorities, we’re looking for equal distribution of minorities, and those are two very different things.

What we cannot have

What seems to be happening, and it’s something that will not fix anything, is that we’re moving to the other side.

We have to discourage any kind of troll, regardless if they agree with you. It may be satisfying to see someone on your side trolling someone you’re against, but that’s as bad as their side’s troll behaviour. Encouraging hate, even in the form of biased consensus and imposed cultural traits is just as bad as any other form of harassment.

More importantly, it’s that form of harassment that gets to the core of autistic people, including high-functioning ones. It’s the very reason why we hide from people and talk to machines. Cases like DongleGate are as extremist as GamerGate, and as offensive to me.

The fact that one misinterpreting person with one picture and one tweet can get someone fired is disconcerting beyond words. As disconcerting as people ganging up on girls just because they want representativeness on their games, or some of those girls ganging up back and doing horrible things with the “excuse” of retaliation. All those behaviours are equally beyond words.

What we cannot have is to flip sides and have the suffering minorities so far gaining the upper hand and gaining the right to harass the majority or worse still, the forgotten minority that started it all and had no intentional part in any of the bullying.

We need to protect the minorities from abuse, and that includes the odd folks that don’t look mentally retarded or deficient in any way but behave oddly and sometimes aggressively. Those people are too often interpreted as bullies when all they want is to be left alone, and all they need is help adapting to an alien society.

The Falacy of Empathy

Empathy, or the ability to feel what other people are feeling, is often associated with good hearted people. In theory, empathy should provide the tools you need to understand someone else’s feelings before you act on instinct, and will block your impulsive actions, making you look like a nice person. Another view of empathy is of people that can display the same emotions as they see, for instance crying when watching a sad film. This empathy is powerful as a motivator, and that’s why so many charities use strong images of poverty or sick puppies to raise money.

On both cases, from an external point of view, it’s hard to understand the reason why people behave nicely or poorly. It’s often assumed that, when people behave well, either being nice to people or helping people in need, they have a high degree of empathy. Conversely, when they don’t, they don’t have empathy. However, that assumption is based on no facts other than apparent behaviour, which can (and often is) manipulative and false.

Why do we need empathy?

Human beings, as other animals, have behavioural strategies to enhance their survival rates. Dogs are known to show deep empathic behaviour, like standing by their owners, or fetching help and saving peoples’ lives, some times without request from a human. Other animals, like monkeys and dolphins show even higher degrees of empathy in some situations, but a much lower on others.

That begs the question: why do we need empathy? Is empathy really important for survival rates, or evolution? Or did we really evolve empathy after we stopped being naturally selected, a few dozen thousand years ago?

There are a few strategies that enhance survival of a species, some of them are related to social relationships. Social animals, those that live in large groups, understand the value in belonging to that group. A zebra alone is an easy prey. Naturally, wanting to belong to a group is a life and death choice. Like zebras, humans are social animals, and it was only after we started bundling ourselves in towns that we needed agriculture and it was after agriculture was introduced that the human race exploded in significance. From an evolutionary point of view, those who were more social ended up gathered inside towns, and prospered. The others, were more easily hunted, or suffered more from the elements, and probably died out in the long run. So, what was left of the human race, were the ones with more social affinity.

It seems obvious to me that empathy (feeling or simulation) is a great enhancement of one’s social abilities. It’ll help you get along with other people even if you don’t like them, it’ll help you not upset them and gain more from your relationship with them. It’s probably the best tool one can have when relating socially with other people. But, as I reasoned above, it’s very hard to separate intention from behaviour, and there are many people that can display extreme empathic behaviour at times, and be a sociopath at others. These people are very likely simulating their behavioural empathy, and in large numbers, it’s hard to separate them from the “real” empaths.

Up until a few thousand years ago, the civilisations were disconnected enough that displaying empathy would only take you so far. But as they began connecting with each other, invading and assimilating cultures, human interaction changed from mono-cultural to multi-cultural, and that’s when displays of empathy became the most powerful tool in human societies.

The Roman religion changed drastically from pluri theistic to mono theistic, and collected a pout-pourri of elements from the diverse cultures it had invaded in order to strongly relate to them and keep other cultures, not just countries, tight with Rome. The Roman empire has fallen, but the dominance of the Catholic church is as strong as ever. That display of empathy, which is the base of the whole catholic church, is what made them the most powerful people in the world for millennia.

We all know the outrageous behaviours that church officials have in all religions, from the most junior to the most senior positions, including most popes, which leads to the conclusion that empathy can be used for both good and evil, and that most people in the world find it hard to separate between good (real) empathy and bad (simulated) empathy.

Whenever you have two survival strategies that provide identical effects to identical stimuli, neither of them are selected over the other, but they coexist in a proportion that is not fixed themselves, but are selected by other means. For instance, politicians must posses the simulated empathy, otherwise, they would never be able to pass on laws that were harmful to a large group of people. The same can be said about the legal and advertising fields, and most senior positions on companies, like CEOs. Those professions are crucial to how our society expect to behave, and thus those kind of people will never be selected out.

One could argue that we don’t really need politicians or lawyers to thrive, and I would agree, but the fact that they’re in power, means they’ll continue to hold that power until there’s enough pressure to push them down. But it will never be strong enough, since people with simulated empathy are being born every day, so there is a pressure to keep the world as it is, due to the very existence of those people.

But of course, neurotypical people considered to have empathy form the large majority of human beings. So, not all simulated empathic people are politics, lawyers or evil people. Some of those people still believe they have real empathy, and can easily convince others of that. Maybe those others also have simulated empathy, or maybe they’re so empathic that they agree to avoid wrong judgement. All in all, by multiple mechanisms, empathic behaviour is self preserved.

To whom do we show empathy?

In the history of human kind, we have seen that most of the time, empathy is directional. Slavers did not feel bad for the slaves, nor whale hunters for whales. In a predominantly white, middle class neighbourhood in the US, people are more likely to cry over a puppy that was ran over by a car than a black kid that was murdered by the police. Excuses like “he probably deserved it” is how people cope with this severe lack of empathy.

In poor countries, like Brazil, the wealth difference is so striking that the same behaviour is common between rich and poor people, no matter the origin. In Sao Paulo, rich people drive their fancy cars around extremely poor people every day. Some otherwise average youngsters burn homeless people alive, others shoot stray cats and dogs in the street, but when they go back home, they love their families, and they’re good kids at school.

In other countries like Israel and Palestine, people are raised to protect their own and to kill the other side. They love their families and friends with such a strength that they would die for them, but as easily kill an entire family in brutal ways just because they belong to another group. This detachment from reality is extremely polarised: empathy towards your own group is as strong, as negative empathy towards competing groups.

This is not specific to Israel, Brazil or the US. I know many people in those countries who are great people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and who would instantly help people (or other animals) in need. But examples like that can be seen anywhere in the world.

Trends, and the distortion of empathy

Another behaviour that was socially selected is how well you can follow the trends, which basically translates to being politically correct. One that doesn’t know or understand a conflict between gender equality since the last century may look very rude and lacking empathy if one says: “some people are naturally more direct and blunt, and women are normally more emotional, thus more easily take offence”. Regardless of the veracity in that phrase, this is an opinion like any other, and in itself, devoid of context. But fights for women suffrage in the last decades have made that kind of comparison somewhat rude.

More recently, the fight has also started on the sexuality realm, where people are no longer content with homo/bi-sexuality, but needed to create a huge number of terms to describe, with accuracy, their feelings about their own sexuality. All in all, a great effort, and certainly very important to the subgroup where this has any meaning, but to a large extent, this matters very little to most other human affairs.

Laws, education, health, jobs, technical discussions, travel, culture, religion and almost all other important subjects that we deal with on a daily basis need no separation between skin colour, ethnicy, gender or sexual orientation. The very fact of making those separations clear, is prejudice in itself, much like stating on a federal law that “black people should also get the vote” when there is no other legal separation between “white” people and “black” people in the voting laws.

We can all see that in practice this is not true, there is a huge separation of intent, execution and judgement across all minorities everywhere in the world, but creating specific categorisations will only create problems for the categories that don’t yet exist. We’ll have to repeat the legalisation of vote for every new category that appear in the future.

But this is also considered empathy, since it’s a matter of exacerbating your empathy towards the cases that you know need exacerbating, because the trend is to do so. Even people that would naturally empathise with some minorities’ problems, have to show an increased response to the topic. That increase response cannot be naturally selected, not even socially selected.

It stands to reason, then, that understanding empathy trends and acting upon them, also known as being politically correct, is solely an artificial factor, and therefore a simulated empathic response. The term politically correct already carries that meaning in itself, but the importance of this is wider: being politically correct is just another behaviour that natural and simulated empathic behaviour express itself, and it would be naive to believe that this is the only simulated empathic response since we split from apes.

This fact, not only reinforces the idea of the existence of simulated empathy embedded in human nature, but helps show that humanity will never get rid of it, as it is a crucial mechanism with which we group ourselves.

Lack of empathy? Or lack of simulation?

In Baron-Cohen’s original paper, where children were asked to choose an option from the point of view of the character, not themselves, autistic children have consistently selected the wrong answer. Is this because they cannot sympathise with the character, or because they cannot understand why, in possession of all the knowledge, they have to choose the wrong place?

I myself have answered that wrong by instinct, and got myself laughing at it. I have also cried like a baby in Grave of the Fireflies and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I can’t watch most American “comedies”, because they all rely on deep embarrassment, and I cannot cope with it, to the point of having real physical discomfort.

Autistic people (Asperger’s included), often offend people and are generally regarded as rude. Is it because they intend to offend, or because they can’t see past the social norm, the politically correct response? Or is it because they really cannot empathise with the other party and end up being cold hearted? I can’t answer that for other people, but I can certainly empathise with people’s feelings, I help a good number of charities that help animals and people, and I teach my kids to respect everyone, independent of their origins. When I’m told I offended someone, I feel deeply and I try very hard to make up, but that doesn’t mean I will be able to do “the right thing” next time.

I can’t simulate empathy. I can’t increase or create empathy for something that society demands me to. I can’t change my opinion or behaviour towards people just because they belong to a group that is trendy. In the same way, I can’t simulate behaviour (I’d be a horrible actor), but I have good imagination (I could be a writer). I can’t simulate affection, love, hate, laughter, but I do posses all those feelings and I display them wholeheartedly. This certainly makes me neurologically atypical, but does that make me wrong? Deficient?

Neural diversity

As with everything else in the universe, neural diversity is a spectrum. But unlike simple things, it’s composed of a large number of factors that compose behaviour, capacity and plasticity. Even though most research on autism have found strong correlations for hereditary, most genes found in autistic more often than in neurotypical people were present in a small percentage of autistic people. This means that the number of genes and the expression of each one count little towards the overall phenotype. People with milder forms of autism, included Aspergers’ Syndrome, have even fuzzier relationships.

Even though it’s assumed that autism account for 1-2% of the population in one form or another, the behaviour autistic people demonstrate can be observed in otherwise neurotypical people, like perseverance on comfortable tasks, lack of sight amidst multiple choices, irritability towards certain sensory inputs (loud music, too many people talking, too hot, too cold), etc.

It would be an interesting line of research to determine how mild or abrupt is the theoretical wall that separates those tagged as “neurotypical” from those diagnosed as autistic of some form, with regards to all known “disability” traits. The fact that people consider that disability is a clear demonstration that they do not accept that behaviour as “normal”. However, how does one define normal? How many abnormal traits do I have to have to be considered autistic? How far should I be from “the norm”?

In IQ tests, the answer is simple. There’s an arbitrary number, 100, and everything above is good, below, not so much. There was a lot of work done (by Raven and others since) to transform the answers of the diverse tests into virtually the same range of numbers, and a lot of controversy stemmed from that, but the general idea applies. You can also apply statistical modelling and define those one sigma above and below, and treat them accordingly. For instance, there are some countries that have reduced prison sentences for people below one or two sigma.

But, like when you mix all the colours of modelling clay together, everything is now turning grey. There is no black and white, no man and woman, no gay and straight. Everything is a spectrum, and behaviour is not an exception. So, what do we accept as good or bad behaviour? How do we include intent when that’s clearly hidden and easily simulated?

Murder is easily on the wrong side of the spectrum, but shouting is a very common and non-abusive behaviour in autistic people. It’s often a response to stressful situations, when you don’t know what else to do. The difference is that stressful situations arise in autistic people that wouldn’t in neurotypical people, for example, when having a hair cut, or when someone else cannot understand what you’re saying. Even though they’re directed at the barber or the other person, they’re absolutely not personal.

How much to accept?

There is, of course, the danger that, allowing some people to behave oddly because they have a letter from the doctor, we’ll encourage other opportunistic people to behave in the same way. An example, if my interpretation is correct, is the Linux mailing list. I don’t know Linus personally, but from his emails and what I hear from people that do know him well, he is most certainly not an asshole.

His consistent behaviour classed as “abuse” is his inflamed reaction to bad code, which cannot easily be separated from the people who wrote it. Some people take it personally, others don’t. My view is that those who do, are either neurotypical or have had history of abuse, and those who don’t, are either towards the autistic end of the spectrum or actively ignore it from a sense of higher purpose, or worse, are opportunists. So, while his behaviour is questionable, and mostly unnecessary, I don’t see the intent of abuse in it, and different people react one way or another for different reasons.

Clearly, a person of his position relying solely on abuse, even with a great intellect, would have fallen long ago (ex. Ulrich Drepper). But that’s not the same for the opportunists, like people that have lesser intellects and need to get their ways via abuse alone, or as a reinforcement. On a healthy community, that kind of behaviour gets automatically curbed with time, but on a community that has its key member (read – great and necessary intellect) behaving in an encouraging way, will have positive feedback, and it can be a lot harder to get rid of the opportunists, and it may even encourage the rise of more of them with time. Linus seem to deal with those people reasonably efficiently (he also trashes maintainers), but not only it generates more work for him and more stress to the community, but it also decreases the trust in that community, which translates into good people abandoning ship.

IMHO

My opinion in all this is simple: treat the disease, not the symptoms.

If Linus encourages opportunistic people, convince him why he should avoid rants for the right reason. Saying it’s not politically correct will most certainly have the opposite effect. Codes of conduct can easily be cheated, abused and transformed. People with intent to do harm will plan well their actions, those that will be caught, however, will be the unaware and innocent.

Do not be offended, unless there was intent. Offence is the easiest thing to get wrong. I may cough and you interpret as an insult, and it all goes downhill. Every time you feel offended, ask the offender the reasons. He/she may surprise you.

It’s not all about you. If I behave badly near you, it doesn’t have to be because of what you’ve done, or who you are, or how you see yourself in the mirror. Most people don’t care much about you (or me), and offence is normally taken by self-important people. Self importance is not a bad thing, and it normally comes in response to previous abuse and sudden revelation (I’m going through that phase myself), but it doesn’t justify offence. I have since had people describing me as disabled or an asshole, and all I did was to explain most of the contents in this post. From now on, I can just send a link.

I personally don’t care much if they understand or agree, as long as they don’t affect my life. This is a liberating feeling that I recommend to every one that has “come out” for whatever reason: be yourself, but respect everyone else.

Oh, you want support?

I don’t know how many open source communities have the same problem, but in the LLVM list we do receive more than a few emails a year with people really upset that no one has fixed their bugs quick enough, or that no one replied to their emails. I find this behaviour quite interesting from a sociological point of view, but if you behave in that way, let me help you straight out: it’s rude. Really.

Business Model

The open source business model relies on sharing of ideas, accumulation of technology and niche development. Small and incremental pieces are incorporated into stabilizing products that provide value to a groups of people.

For example, MacOS and Linux provide different values to the same user base (desktop users). The more commercial software, like MacOS, provide a stable, recognizable interface, with powerful integration to other products of the same line, while the open counterparts provide a more experimental interface, but greater control and spread of knowledge.

Apple’s business model is quite different than most Linux distributions, but both heavily use/derive open source infrastructure (kernel, compilers, libraries). So, if you purchase MacOS, you’re getting not only the eye candy, but also some components that are open source, like LLVM. What companies get from investing in LLVM is up for a different kind of post, but rest assured, the license is really clear: “THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED “AS IS”, WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED”.

Presumptuous Crowd

Most Linux/BSD users, when they have a problem with their programs, they first search the web for the error message. In the uncommon case where they don’t find an answer, they then post on forums or mailing lists, often politely, dumping their logs and error messages, and gladly waiting for an answer, that may take a day, a week, sometimes, it may be forgotten. They, then, try a different forum, or “ping” their messages, work a bit harder, find more causes, etc.

After all, no one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself. Let me make that one clear:

No one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself.

Most people that deal with open source understand that. Most people that buy software don’t. But there is an intermediate crowd, that has recently grown tremendously: the freemium folks.

Most people now enjoy an impressive amount of free products, in midst of all the software that they did purchase, and for most of them, they do receive the same quality of support that they do for their paid products. That seems controversial, even paradoxical, but the answer is quite simple: they’re not free.

If you haven’t figured out yet, let’s get that one clear, too: you pay for it with your personal information. Accurate location logs, purchase history, personal identification, credit status, number of friends (and all their personal information too), who you like and who you don’t, etc. All that information is dutifully stored and used for their profit. A profit that is orders of magnitude higher than it would be if they did none of that and you paid $10 for it. Even $100. Hell, even if you paid $1000 per year, it would have been cheaper, or better said, they would have less money from you.

So, it only makes sense that they treat you like a full-paid member of their exclusive club, and treat you like a king so that you don’t jump ship and go share your cat picture on the other social website. Some people quickly understand what’s at stake, but most of them would keep using the service as a matter of convenience. They know the price of their privacy, and they exchange it for convenience.

Market Penetration

As predicted by many in the 90s, and repeated by most in the last decade, open source (free/libre/etc) has taken the roots of computing and is now the base for all technology. From stock markets, to the ISS. From high-performance computing centres to schools. From operating systems to games. Open source is everywhere, and more people that never thought would have any contact with open source, are now getting exposed to it first hand. The pervasion of open source technologies is so complete, that I risk to say that there isn’t any profitable company today that doesn’t use or ship open source with its products. There isn’t a gadget that you own that didn’t use it during design or production, or rely on it for its operation.

And, as with any other technology, occasionally, open source fails. And as they fail, helpful messages pop up where users were expecting a nice “support contract” fixing it straight away. You may contact whoever you paid, and they may help you, or they may give the standard response that it’s not their problem. After all, your privacy is worth a lot of money, but not that much.

Support Contract

Because open source is everywhere, more and more people that were not used how it works are now falling pray to the support contract fallacy.

You may get expedite help from Android “free” apps makers, or social media websites, and they may provide their services for free and still be very friendly and helpful, but you cannot compare that freedom with libre/open source freedom. In free software / open source, we do not store your personal data, not we want to. We do not track your whereabouts, nor we contact your friend on your behalf. We don’t have that freedom, mostly because that’s not our business model, but also because most of us believe that’s wrong.

Because you’re not directly, nor indirectly, paying us, you cannot, ever expect that anyone will help you, less still, in any reasonable time. The overwhelming majority of people working in open source projects are directly or indirectly paid by companies, and that’s their day jobs. Folks that fix the problems that their companies think will best improve their products. Only a small minority of lucky bastards can work on free software without getting any compensation or direction from a company, but even those people have their own agenda. And that’s very rarely aligned with yours.

Expecting support, complaining about the lack of help or interest in your problems, is like carrying a large bag through the underground and be mad a people for not helping you. Granted, many people will help you, but as a selfless act, not as a support contract. Only those that are going in the same direction, or those that have a free hand, or that have some shared history (like, they have been in the same situation before), will likely help you, and different people align differently with your problem. If it’s a large suitcase, or a baby pram, or some clumsy and fragile painting. Different people will help in different times.

In libre/open source, the situation is exactly the same. We’re all working along our own projects and priorities, and unless your problem is directly related to my paid job, I will rarely even look at it. It’s not out of spite, but if I stop doing the work I’m paid and start helping all those in need, I’ll lose my job and I won’t be able to help anyone any more. Not to mention feed my family.

The social contract

When you send an email that no one pays attention, try to phrase it differently. Or better yet, do some more investigations, provide more information, show that you care about what you’re asking. There’s nothing worse in a forum, than people asking others to solve their homework. The general rule of free help is that you must show equal or more interest and sweat on what you’re asking, than the people that are helping you. It’s exactly the opposite than on a support contracts. Moreover, your behaviour will tell people whether to help you or not. The more aggressive and demanding you become, the less people will help you. The more humble and hard working you are, the opposite will happen.

To understand that social contract, think of it as an exchange. If you bring a lot of information with your request, I will learn a thing of two about that. I enjoy learning, so, even if it’s not my area, I may feel compelled to help you just because you might teach me something. If there is any payment in community help, this is it. The knowledge you pass on to people helping you, and the joy they feel of learning a new thing and helping a nice chap.

In the end, most people that are new to such environments, end up learning it really fast, and become enthusiastic contributors. This is, for me, the beauty of the lack of payments. Each one values the newly acquired knowledge in different ways, so it’d be impossible to treat them as standard currency. But, since I don’t tell you how much I value your contribution, and vice versa, we cannot know who has the profit. More importantly, in this case, profit is not the difference between my gains and your gains, but the difference between my expectation of gains and my actual gains, which is completely independent of your exchange ratios.

This is precisely what Buckminster Fuller meant as Synergetics. The total system behaviour is not always predictable from the behaviour of all its parts, and in some systems, the value aggregated can be more than the sum of its individual gains. This is why the open source business model is so infectious and addictive. Once you’re in, there’s no way out. But you have to put some effort.

Collection of data is not the only problem

What the NSA has taught us is that mass surveillance is not as hard as people used to think. Other governments, and most commercial companies, do that, too. With the advent of smartphones we’ve learned to ignore most of that for the sake of convenience, and most of the time, it’s ok.

It’s true that the bulk surveillance from governments can spark enough false positives to make people worried, or that Google and Facebook are using your personal details to make a bucket load of money, and some others are selling those details, sometimes not even realising.

When you think of all the power that the government can do with your data, or all the money that big corporations are making with your personal information, it’s nor surprising to think: “where’s my share in this?”. Some people even tried to evaluate how much would you get for selling different types of personal information to corporations. But, is that the real question that we should be asking?

Should we be concerned with what data do we leak and try to minimise it, or should we really be thinking what can they really do with that information? Of course, any answer will be a mix of both (since not all investigating parties are well intentioned or law abiding), but there is the limit of government and corporation’s powers that can go a long way of making the data useful but not harmful.

Privacy

I said this before and I still maintain my position that no one has ever had privacy. Parents eavesdrop on their kids behaviour since the dawn of humanity as a way to grow them into responsible adults. The concept of “being responsible” has changed over the millennia, but parents have not.

Law making and enforcing bodies have eavesdropping as their primordial way of acquiring information. Since people normally only do bad stuff when no one is looking, expecting the police to only use highly visual enquiring methods (such as asking personally or patrolling an area) become impossibly expensive very quickly. It is true that random checkpoints, fake speed cameras and signs do help awareness, but that’s also not optimal from a monetary point of view.

Privacy also goes against any common sense in the outside world. If you take a bus, every one in that bus knows you’re there, even if they don’t know who you are. If there is a picture of you on the bus saying “wanted, dead or alive”, they will see you and report you. There’s little you can do, besides hiding and never showing your face again. Famous people (actors, etc) have the same problem and the solution is pretty much hide.

Data

The data you “leak” is also the data that defines you. Where you have been, what you like, where you work and live, what food you eat and what you do on Saturdays. Collecting that data and providing a service on that is actually extremely beneficial to you. The problem is who has access to that information.

Tesco knows what I need to buy better than I do. They send me vouchers with discount on fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and fresh tomato on the vine. They know I love Caprese salad, and I actually like Tesco knowing that, because I get a slightly cheaper Caprese salad once in a while.

Google Maps knows where I live and work, so that when I’m going home I can just say: “Ok Google, go home”, and it does the rest. If I don’t share that kind of information with Google, it would never be able to do what I want it to. Examples like that are everywhere, and each company must have access to a wide range of data from you (location, shopping habits, browsing habits) for them to be able to do so. It’s the unavoidable fact of information theory that you need enough entropy to find patterns.

Legality

The real problem here is what companies end up doing with your data, and how well they protect it from malicious outsiders. Even if the company is benign, once they get hacked, your bundle of personal data which is enough to infer pretty accurate patters about your personal life, are out there. Who know what the attackers will do you that?

Another problem is blanket approvals to bypass any legal system and arrest, judge and execute individuals solely based on bulk surveillance patterns that are known to generate an immense amount of false positives, not only because the algorithms are inexact, but because the people filtering and creating the rules don’t posses enough knowledge to know what they’re looking for in the first place.

Finally, what happens if the benign company that provides you an invaluable service is suddenly acquired by an unscrupulous company? Can the reach of the service widen based on the parent company’s privacy policy? Or is the data protected like source code that is licensed as open source with, for example, the GNU license?

Solutions

So, a pragmatic view on surveillance should attack the problem of the legality of actions on data, not just the legality of acquiring data in the first place. The legal system can already cope with that, for instance when evidence is found via illegal means (unapproved wire or microphone), it cannot be used against the accused. The “Patriot Act” changed all that in the US, and in other countries, and that’s the first thing that has to be changed back to a sane standard. Governments should never have the ability to bypass the judicial and executive system based on *any* collected data, especially if it was done in bulk, with irrelevant patterns to match.

Another topic that needs addressing is licences on data, especially collected data for the purposes of personal services. There are licenses that cover open data, such as Creative Commons, but these cannot be applied to private data that a company has access with the sole purpose of providing a service. Each company has a different privacy policy and the EFF has great tools to monitor them all, but all of that is solely dependent on the company’s ethics.

A change of the board, or the managing directors, or even an acquisition, is enough to pervert the privacy policy and render the previous data they had on you (that you cannot ever delete any more) to their benefit. What we need is a data license that is not open (since it’s private data), but that is protected in the same way against future changes.

There may be cases for more or less stringent licenses (like GNU vs. BSD) for different uses, but once they’re standard licenses, we don’t need to read every single privacy policy of every company every time they change some minor wording, we’d know what kind of freedoms and guarantees we’re getting, and companies won’t have the right to subversively change it.

Finally, there should be a guarantee in the license that the company is required to store such data in a protected way, following a set of standard cryptographic techniques and solutions, and there should be a clause on how they would destroy the data on the minimal attempt of intrusion. To compensate the total loss of service for all users, they must store such data in different locations, using different techniques and keys, and distribute it across multiple locations.

It may seem daunting for small companies to provide small services, but so did cheap scalable storage and service providing until Amazon created the AWS and all others followed suit. If there is a demand, someone will create the solution. That has been the human response to everything since we came down trees to conquer the planet and we won’t stop here.

Conclusion

It’s not the data, it’s what governments and corporations can do with the data, and how to protect it from malicious parties.

Asperger’s and the failure of the educational system

Asperger’s Syndrome (more info), a condition within the Autism spectrum where social awareness is lacking, but communication skills are not affected much, is a topic floating around our house for a few years. After many ups and downs, our son has finally been diagnosed with it, and the rest of the family will need serious checking, too.

That has brought us many explanations to most of our problems at work and school, and got me thinking on many of the issues I found illogical in the educational system, but always though it was my fault for not adapting to it. Now, the more I think, the more I realise that any system that base teaching on the average child is, to say the least, mediocre.

On a large scale, children (and adults), range from very low to very high skills in many areas, from IQ, to social, to artistic or empathic skills. With so many different dimensions, and so many scales focused on defining people for what they are, and so many different types of peoples around, trying to create the imaginary “average child” to educate is a folly quest. But a lot more serious than folly, is the quest to force different children to accommodate to that imaginary average and brutalise them when they don’t. There is a name for it: bullying.

Schools are well known for not caring much for the “lesser minds“, since they don’t contribute much to the scoring system, under disability Acts, they’re free to refer those problematic children to special schools, where they will be marginalised and receive funding from the government for the rest of their lives, even though, if thought well, they could perfectly have a decent living by themselves.

But the brightest children are also in peril, for they do contribute to scoring, and in a positive way. They’re sought after by schools that have no idea on how to educate those children. With the failure to understand their advanced needs, those kids become repugnant braggarts. Even though they can go beyond on arts, maths or science, most of them lack any social skills or, for the very definition of “special“, fail miserably to conform to the “average child” norm.

The expectation that special children have the same traits as average children, plus a few special skills, is idiotic, and I’m really surprised that this has passed in so many countries and educational systems as the norm to be followed, and imposed. It shows that whomever is dealing with educating the brightest minds are not brightest minds themselves. It’s the same as giving the job to rehabilitate petty criminals to serial killers.

Scoring System

The very notion of scoring system is at the core of the standardisation of the human race.

Each group in society has a different take on what’s important for their cohesion. Some rely on competition and selfish behaviour to keep the capitalism alive and kicking, others rely on knowledge and logical thinking to progress science, and so on. This diversity is paramount to define the human race as a multi-cultural species, where every aspect of it is as valuable as every other.

The notion of a National Curriculum is a good one, since even the most artistic ones have to be able to add up at the grocery store, and the brightest mathematicians should be able to plat instruments, if they so chose. But what happens in most schools, and certainly in all public schools we’ve been in England, so far, it’s that they treat the curriculum as a golden standard, and don’t even attempt to go beyond.

The same way when you’re speeding on the road, and the policeman stop you and say “The speed limit is a limit, not a guideline”, the National Curriculum is a minimum, not a guideline. It means that, if you’re not teaching at least that, you should not be called a “school” to begin with. But it also means that you should go beyond, at least for the children that have the capacity to follow.

No child will follow on every category, so you need to know what each child can do on each extra topic. That also means that, while the least able children will have at least the National Curriculum, the average children will have more in different areas, and the only difference between the average and the above-average children is the amount of extra subjects and topics they learn. It’s that simple.

Exams

But for it to be that simple, the way exams work have to change completely. Exams today don’t test for what a child knows or have learnt, but it tests for what they are able to memorise in a short term, or how effectively they can guess, or how efficiently they can cheat.

Take, for example, the SAT tests, which are the exams taken by all children between primary and secondary schools. The format here is to fill the blanks. It’s a lot better than multiple choice, even though there are many questions in it that are multiple choice there, but it’s not testing the ability of children to think at all.

It is true that average children will have to think to answer those questions. It is also true that average children will have to have learnt that in the first place by listening and memorising the concepts, but not necessarily understood why they’re like that. There seems to be no questions about why the universe behaves in that way, or why I can solve the same mathematical problem in different ways and still get the same results.

But the biggest failure is that the tests are standardised to the National Curriculum, and standardised to what an ideal average child will be able to understand and answer from her memory. In the age of the technological revolution, we have to ask ourselves if this is the right way forward.

Do we want to continue forcing people to follow averages, if we want humans to be a better species? Do we need more average people doing specialised work? Isn’t our technological level ready for a de-centralised, de-normalised learning experience, which will fare a lot better on all non-average children in the world (ie. all children), and allow better matching to their own skills, desires and abilities?

One such way would be to have more meaningful questions, with non-obvious answer, and software to analyse them. So, instead of drawing the circulatory system and asking children to fill the lines pointing to organs with names, ask them to describe how the blood circulates inside the body. True, natural language processing is still not there yet, but there are a number of different ways to ask questions and make sure that the answer will be simple enough to be dealt with simple regular expressions or state machines that, in context, will be limited to only a number of valid answers.

Each answer will lead to different following questions, based on the answer, and each new step will take you towards harder or easier questions, or more specific to one topic or another. Recording the paths for each child will also tell you what are the missing knowledge in each child, and what topics the teachers have to cover more in depth, in general.

Personalised learning per se is not optimal, as I have seen myself with the Khan academy and programming books. My son could easily write new programs, and they would certainly work, but he couldn’t explain to me why. It was only when I intervene that he starting to understand why, but the attitude remains: he won’t need to understand why while questions, exams and results are measured by multiple choice, filling the blanks or guessing the answer.

Asperger’s disadvantage

Among intelligent people, those with Asperger’s have a serious disadvantage: as with other types of Autism, they can pattern match instinctively, and come up with accurate results without knowing how they did it. During primary school this is a huge advantage, since all questions are too silly to matter, but as you progress to secondary school (or worse, if you have a perfectionist father), you’ll have more and more difficulties in answering the questions that really matter: why?

Knowing “why” is fundamental because of reproducibility. Science is all about method. Mathematics is only consistent because it has a single method. Science follow suite, and is only consistent because it’s based on maths. This consistency comes in the form of reproducibility. If you can describe your method, and others can follow, than you have a proof, or a theory. Otherwise, it’s pseudo-science, or religion.

If one wants to answer questions, not just get them right on average, one wants to understand why certain method works, on which cases, with which constraints. If you spent your whole (short) life guessing and getting accurate answers (not necessarily correct ones), and if all the school cares is to be reasonably correct, than you’ll think you’re a genius (the school will, too), and you won’t learn how to think until it’s too late.

Since schools don’t even try to understand the differences between the learning process of children, they never spot this in any child. We only got an early warning from one of the head teachers (the best, so far, at Queen Edith’s), because of behaviour issues, not learning problems. They were simply unaware that our son would not even know why he was right. This is very similar to what expert computer systems can do, and we don’t consider them to be intelligent.

Recently, I took matters into my own hands and am teaching both my kids to think. I don’t care what answer they give me, I want to know why they think that’s the answer. I want explanations, not step-by-step equation solving that can be easily memorised, I want them to tell me why they can apply that step in solving that equation. Why do they think that stars are hotter than planets, why can’t you send messages faster than the speed of light, even with entanglement. Why is what really matters, and that’s the least worry in all schools I’ve ever been, or have ever seen.

Time for a change

Until we manage to find a way to ask why, and get meaningful and measurable answers from our children, we’ll still be in the stone ages. All the progress that we think we’ve made since the wheel is but a fleck on what we can achieve. People that assume our understanding as complete, or even good enough are idiots and should not be given any level of control over our society.

Next time you vote, ask your candidate why, and be ready to change candidates if they don’t understand, or can’t answer the question. You’ll see, like Russel Brand did, that you’ll end up without a candidate.

We need to change how we think, and the question of this century is why?. Ask your kids every day, why. Don’t let them ask why if they can’t answer why. Every day, wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and ask…

WHY?!

Second language curse

I count myself privileged of being proficient in a second language (English), which has helped me learn other languages and have a more elastic mind towards different concepts in life. But there is a curse that I just found out, and it turned out to be significant.

For a few years I realised that I was signing my emails with the wrong name: “reanto” instead of “renato“. And since I sign manually all my emails (and I send many emails a day), I could get a true sense of the problem. In the last year or so, the problem got a lot worse, and now I can’t sign my own emails any more without erasing “reanto” and re-writing “renato” almost every time.

Now, misspelling English words (even when you do know the correct spelling) is ok, since I haven’t started typing when we moved to England, far from it. Misspelling Portuguese words is also ok, because the contact with a new language will bring new sounds, and some uncertainty on how to spell a native word will arise after a few years without much contact with it. But misspelling your own name?! That’s a whole new class of fail.

Today it occurred to me that the reason for that might very well be the same as the rest, after all my name is just another word that I know how to spell. And, it turns out that, in the English language, “anis the 5th most common digraph, while “na” doesn’t even register!

So, the frequency which I write the digraphs (and trigraphs) in English are shaping my ability to write my own name. Much the same as the problems that my native language have when I write English, for instance, I have to delete the “e” at the end of many words like “frequent“, as it seems to come before I even think about it.

While writing this small post, the browser’s spell checker has fixed my misspellings (including the previous word) many times, and forcing me to not have the checker bug me, has also forced me to misspell my own name.

The brain is a weird thing…

Tale of The Water

In a village, far from any big city, there lived a family which had access to clean water from a nearby river. With the rain from many spring and autumn months being abundant, the family never had any trouble to wash clothes, cook and drink, or even have a good long bath. But the village, as any good village in the world, grew along that river, and each family had access to clean and fresh water.

As times pass, the legend of good water spread across the land, and more and more people joined the thriving community of the water village. But with growth, there’s lack of space, and not everyone had direct access to the river, but had to cross the original settlers’ gardens to get to water. Some fights and some profits later, the community, that now extended across several rows of houses on both sides of the river, as far as the eye could see, had a meeting to decide what would be done about the “water problem”.

The eldest, and self-elected leader of the community, had many friends among the first settlers. He wasn’t himself living by the river, since he got there not long ago, but with a few favours (especially helping increasing the profits of the original settlers to share their water with the newcomers), he got himself in a pretty good spot, and had enough contacts on both sides of the river to reign almost unimpeded.

To no surprise, he was the first to speak: “Friends of the Water Village, we gather today to decide what to do with the water.” Half-way through the sentence, every body had stopped talking, so he proceeded: “We all know that the water in this village is of the best quality in all the land”, and a chorus in the background said “yeah!”. “We all know that the first settlers have the rights in accessing and distributing the water, which you all know I am not part of, nor I profit from their enterprise, I only help to see that their profits and rights are guaranteed.” There was silence, for most knew that it was a lie, but they either didn’t want to oppose (at least not publicly), or didn’t care.

“But recent events called for a special gathering. So many of you hear that there are people accessing the river via the bridge, which blocks the crossing and put the bridge, which is not of the best quality, in danger!”. “Not to mention that this is a disrespect with the original settlers, that fought so hard to build our thriving community, and gave us the bless of such good water, and have helped us in reaching the water in such beautiful and useful buckets of their own creation.” “We owe them the right to share with us their water, the right to charge for the tireless efforts to provide our homes with the best water, carefully selected and cared for.” There was a faint ovation from the bench where the original settlers were, with many of them only shrugging, or not even that.

“Some of you reported the efforts of our friend that decided to pass a pipe through his land to make it easier to other villagers to have access to water, and that was already dealt with. We destroyed his pipe, and let that be a warning of anyone trying to pervert the art of the original settlers, as we owe them our delicious water!”. “Now, as with any democracy, I open the floor for comments, on how are we going to solve this problems.”

With this, some of the original settlers mentioned how the town should restrict the access to the bridge, and to charge a fee to cross, so that people that uses the bridge have the intention to cross the bridge, not to collect water. Others mentioned that it still wouldn’t stop collectors, but, as some said, they could restrict the validity of the tickets to a short period of time, in which a new charge would be collected.

About the pipe “problem”, many suggested that it should be made illegal to have pipes in any house, not just on the original settles, because connecting pipes between houses was not technically difficult, and it would be hard to solve the problem in case many houses ended up connecting to each other, as it was already happening in the north area.

When all the citizens were heard, and all the votes were taken, most of the ideas were unanimously approved. When the final hammer stroke down, finishing the meeting, one citizen, who was not one of the original settlers rose up: “This is outrageous! It doesn’t make sense, the water comes from the rain, and there is no innate right of the original settlers to charge anything for it!”. As he was saying this, one of the man standing behind the bench left in silence.

To that, not much was done from the central bench, where the eldest was sitting in the middle. He slowly rose is head, adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Friend, we’d be happy to hear your pledge, but as you all know, you don’t have the right to address the council. Only original settlers, and those appointed by them, can speak at the council. If you want to voice your concerns, I suggest you talk to your representative.” To which the man responded: “But my representative is an original settler, and I can’t vote for anyone that is not one, so they don’t represent me, they never had!”. “I’m sorry friend, but this is how democracy works, we can’t change the world just because of you.”.

The villager’s face was red, his eyes twitched slightly. The despair in his mind was clear, but he didn’t have much time to fall into it, for the silent men returned to the settlers’ bench and whispered something to the eldest’s ear only. The eldest turned his head again to the nonconformist villager. “Dear sir, we hear stories that you have been consistently using the bridge in the past days, is that true?”. “Well, yes, my sister lives on the other side, and I go visit her every day.”. “The reports also say that you take a bucket with you, and that you fill it with water, do you agree?”. “Well, yes, of course, I take the water for my sick sister, she needs it to aid her recovery.”. “And you haven’t paid a single settler for more than a month, how much water do you have stored at your house, dear sir?”.

It didn’t take long for the strong men behind the bench take the poor villager into a closed room, and he was never heard of ever again. Even though the water is a resource from nature, and despite the fact that water is essential to every living creature, the innate right of ownership of basic needs is common place in many parts of the world.

Creativity is a gift we received from evolution, as a way to save ourselves from more powerful foes. Creativity has a large proportion of imitation, since other living beings have different ideas, equally effective, against our common foes, and those that copy and share ideas, survive for longer. And yet, out society believes, for some serious distortion of natural reality, that the right to own something is more important than the right to survive.

If you read this story again, but replacing “water” with “music”, and making the appropriate changes, you’ll see that it makes as much sense as the original tale. And yet, a huge empire is built on the presumption that creativity can be owned by anyone. Who was the first to play certain tune? How many completely separate cultures have the same beat on their millenarian songs? There are infinite ways of combining words, but only a few actually make sense, and a lot less than that ends up beautiful.

Songs, poems, tales, videos, films, theatre are all forms of expressing the same feelings in different ways, but some people have the luxury of owning the rights of a particular way of expression, mainly because the law is written to favour them, than because they have actually created something truly new. No one has.

We all copy ideas. That’s called survival. That’s genetic. That’s what define us.

Why are we so ashamed of our own past? Why do we accept that the rich gets richer on our own account? Why do we agree that paying millions of dollars to an already filthy rich actors, directors and producers makes sense, for them to give us the benefit of watching the “Hangover III”, when it’s an absolute copy of itself for the second time, when the original was a pout-pourri of many other films and stories? Why do we accept a law that makes us criminals by sharing creativity, a basic instinct of the human race?

What has come of the human race to accept this as “normal”?

Open Source and Profit

I have written extensively about free, open source software as a way of life, and now reading back my own articles of the past 7 years, I realize that I was wrong on some of the ideas, or in the state of the open source culture within business and around companies.

I’ll make a bold statement to start, trying to get you interested in reading past the introduction, and I hope to give you enough arguments to prove I’m right. Feel free to disagree on the comments section.

The future of business and profit, in years to come, can only come if surrounded by free thoughts.

By free thoughts I mean free/open source software, open hardware, open standards, free knowledge (both free as in beer and as in speech), etc.

Past Ideas

I began my quest to understand the open source business model back in 2006, when I wrote that open source was not just software, but also speech. Having open source (free) software is not enough when the reasons why the software is free are not clear. The reason why this is so is that the synergy, that is greater than the sum of the individual parts, can only be achieved if people have the rights (and incentives) to reach out on every possible level, not just the source, or the hardware. I make that clear later on, in 2009, when I expose the problems of writing closed source software: there is no ecosystem in which to rely, so progress is limited and the end result is always less efficient, since the costs to make it as efficient are too great and would drive the prices of the software too high up to be profitable.

In 2008 I saw both sides of the story, pro and against Richard Stallman, on the views of the legitimacy of propriety control, being it via copyright licenses or proprietary software. I may have come a long way, but I was never against his idea of the perfect society, Richard Stallman’s utopia, or as some friends put it: The Star Trek Universe. The main difference between me and Stallman is that he believes we should fight to the last man to protect ourselves from the evil corporations towards software abuse, while I still believe that it’s impossible for them to sustain this empire for too long. His utopia will come, whether they like it or not.

Finally, in 2011 I wrote about how copying (and even stealing) is the only business model that makes sense (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle etc are all thieves, in that sense) and the number of patent disputes and copyright infringement should serve to prove me right. Last year I think I had finally hit the epiphany, when I discussed all these ideas with a friend and came to the conclusion that I don’t want to live in a world where it’s not possible to copy, share, derive or distribute freely. Without the freedom to share, our hands will be tied to defend against oppression, and it might just be a coincidence, but in the last decade we’ve seen the biggest growth of both disproportionate propriety protection and disproportional governmental oppression that the free world has ever seen.

Can it be different?

Stallman’s argument is that we should fiercely protect ourselves against oppression, and I agree, but after being around business and free software for nearly 20 years, I so far failed to see a business model in which starting everything from scratch, in a secret lab, and releasing the product ready for consumption makes any sense. My view is that society does partake in an evolutionary process that is ubiquitous and compulsory, in which it strives to reduce the cost of the whole process, towards stability (even if local), as much as any other biological, chemical or physical system we know.

So, to prove my argument that an open society is not just desirable, but the only final solution, all I need to do is to show that this is the least energy state of the social system. Open source software, open hardware and all systems where sharing is at the core should be, then, the least costly business models, so to force virtually all companies in the world to follow suit, and create the Stallman’s utopia as a result of the natural stability, not a forced state.

This is crucial, because every forced state is non-natural by definition, and every non-natural state has to be maintained by using resources that could be used otherwise, to enhance the quality of the lives of the individuals of the system (being them human or not, let’s not block our point of view this early). To achieve balance on a social system we have to let things go awry for a while, so that the arguments against such a state are perfectly clear to everyone involved, and there remains no argument that the current state is non-optimal. If there isn’t discomfort, there isn’t the need for change. Without death, there is no life.

Profit

Of all the bad ideas us humans had on how to build a social system, capitalism is probably one of the worst, but it’s also one of the most stable, and that’s because it’s the closest to the jungle rule, survival of the fittest and all that. Regulations and governments never came to actually protect the people, but as to protect capitalism from itself, and continue increasing the profit of the profitable. Socialism and anarchy rely too much on forced states, in which individuals have to be devoid of selfishness, a state that doesn’t exist on the current form of human beings. So, while they’re the product of amazing analysis of the social structure, they still need heavy genetic changes in the constituents of the system to work properly, on a stable, least-energy state.

Having less angry people on the streets is more profitable for the government (less costs with security, more international trust in the local currency, more investments, etc), so panis et circenses will always be more profitable than any real change. However, with more educated societies, result from the increase in profits of the middle class, more real changes will have to be made by governments, even if wrapped in complete populist crap. One step at a time, the population will get more educated, and you’ll end up with more substance and less wrapping.

So, in the end, it’s all about profit. If not using open source/hardware means things will cost more, the tendency will be to use it. And the more everyone uses it, the less valuable will be the products that are not using it, because the ecosystem in which applications and devices are immersed in, becomes the biggest selling point of any product. Would you buy a Blackberry Application, or an Android Application? Today, the answer is close to 80% on the latter, and that’s only because they don’t use the former at all.

It’s not just more expensive to build Blackberry applications, because the system is less open, the tools less advanced, but also the profit margins are smaller, and the return on investment will never justify. This is why Nokia died with their own App store, Symbian was not free, and there was a better, free and open ecosystem already in place. The battle had already been lost, even before it started.

But none of that was really due to moral standards, or Stallman’s bickering. It was only about profit. Microsoft dominated the desktop for a few years, long enough to make a stand and still be dominant after 15 years of irrelevance, but that was only because there was nothing better when they started, not by a long distance. However, when they tried to flood the server market, Linux was not only already relevant, but it was better, cheaper and freer. The LAMP stack was already good enough, and the ecosystem was so open, that it was impossible for anyone with a closed development cycle to even begin to compete on the same level.

Linux became so powerful that, when Apple re-defined the concept of smartphones with the iPhone (beating Nokia’s earlier attempts by light-years of quality), the Android system was created, evolved and dominated in less than a decade. The power to share made possible for Google, a non-device, non-mobile company, to completely outperform a hardware manufacturer in a matter of years. If Google had invented a new OS, not based on anything existent, or if they had closed the source, like Apple did with FreeBSD, they wouldn’t be able to compete, and Apple would still be dominant.

Do we need profit?

So, the question is: is this really necessary? Do we really depend on Google (specifically) to free us from the hands of tyrant companies? Not really. If it wasn’t Google, it’d be someone else. Apple, for a long time, was the odd guy in the room, and they have created an immense value for society: they gave us something to look for, they have educated the world on what we should strive for mobile devices. But once that’s done, the shareable ecosystem learns, evolves and dominate. That’s not because Google is less evil than Apple, but because Android is more profitable than iOS.

Profit here is not just the return on investment that you plan on having on a specific number of years, but adding to that, the potential that the evolving ecosystem will allow people to do when you’ve long lost the control over it. Shareable systems, including open hardware and software, allow people far down in the planing, manufacturing and distributing process to still have profit, regardless of what were your original intentions. One such case is Maddog’s Project Cauã.

By using inexpensive RaspberryPis, by fostering local development and production and by enabling the local community to use all that as a way of living, Maddog’s project is using the power of the open source initiative by completely unrelated people, to empower the people of a country that much needs empowering. That new class of people, from this and other projects, is what is educating the population of the world, and what is allowing the people to fight for their rights, and is the reason why so many civil uprisings are happening in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt.

Instability

All that creates instability, social unrest, whistle-blowing gone wrong (Assange, Snowden), and this is a good thing. We need more of it.

It’s only when people feel uncomfortable with how the governments treat them that they’ll get up their chairs and demand for a change. It’s only when people are educated that they realise that oppression is happening (since there is a force driving us away from the least-energy state, towards enriching the rich), and it’s only when these states are reached that real changes happen.

The more educated society is, the quicker people will rise to arms against oppression, and the closer we’ll be to Stallman’s utopia. So, whether governments and the billionaire minority likes or not, society will go towards stability, and that stability will migrate to local minima. People will rest, and oppression will grow in an oscillatory manner until unrest happens again, and will throw us into yet another minimum state.

Since we don’t want to stay in a local minima, we want to find the best solution not just a solution, having it close to perfect in the first attempt is not optimal, but whether we get it close in the first time or not, the oscillatory nature of social unrest will not change, and nature will always find a way to get us closer to the global minimum.

Conclusion

Is it possible to stay in this unstable state for too long? I don’t think so. But it’s not going to be a quick transition, nor is it going to be easy, nor we’ll get it on the first attempt.

But more importantly, reaching stability is not a matter of forcing us to move towards a better society, it’s a matter of how dynamic systems behave when there are clear energetic state functions. In physical and chemical systems, this is just energy, in biological systems this is the propagation ability, and in social systems, this is profit. As sad as it sounds…

Game Theory and the fate of a generation

An interesting though came up via Bruce Schneier’s blog that got me thinking, and having trouble educating my pre-teen child, that thought grew on me and now many of his behaviours can be explained by the inability of spotting which game to play in real life.

When I finally had this same conversation with him, a whole model of how much of a failure our society is becoming, appeared clear as day for both of us!

What games do we play?

First, a crash course on game theory, you can skip this part if you already know. Basically, a game is played between two players who can take decisions based on what they think the other player will do, and points are given whether you cooperate or not in conjunction with the other players cooperation or not. For example, if both cooperate, both get 5 points. If one cooperates and the other doesn’t, the cheater gets 7 points and the looser gets 0. If they’re both cheaters, both get 1 point.

Well, since you have no idea what the other will choose, there’s 50% chance that the other player will cooperate and 50% that she will not. If you choose to cooperate, you have 50% chance of getting 5 points and 50% of getting zero. If you don’t, it’s 50% 7 points and 50% 1 point.

Clearly, if you play the game only once, cheating is the answer. There is no reason not to cheat. However, if you’ll have to play the same game with the same player more than once, possibly your whole life, than, well, cheating tires quickly. If you cheat now, the other player will cheat next, and both of you will remain cheating forever, since you know that if you don’t, by definition, you’ll get 0 points and she will get 7. We call this a stable solution, once you get there, there’s no coming back.

However, if both cooperate, both get 5, and as long as you both cooperate, you’ll always get 5. Sure, it’s not as profitable as 7, but it’s close enough. But as soon as one cheats, the other will feel betrayed, and will cheat. We call this an unstable solution. It demands trust on the other player, and as soon as the trust is broken, it’ll be very hard to regain it.

If that made you think about how life treats you, it’s no coincidence. John Nash used that language to describe reality, and he could clearly see reality like better than most of us. When John Nash says that “life is a game”, he truly means it, and he came up with the mathematical notation to prove it, and studied it to great length.

Video Games

In the beginning, there was pong. Pong was simple and fun. Then, the explosion of video games in the 80’s brought a lot of easy and hard games, but in almost all of them you had to work hard to get the prize. Some of then didn’t even had a prize, it was just an infinite number of repetitions, faster and faster, and the real competition was among the players, who got the best score.

The real game, however, was not on the screen, was on the player’s brain. Those games have conditioned people that there is a prize, and there is a task, and they are related. If they perform the task better than a certain threshold, the prize is bronze/silver/gold. It feels really good to get a prize, and that way of making people feel good (or bad) was found a century ago by Ivan Pavlov.

But video games is as much Pavlovian as street games. They’re as innocent and as powerful as any Olympic game on the minds of people. Video games use a different part of the body, the brain, and for that it was much more popular amongst nerds than sporty types. They had found a niche, at least before the 90’s arrived, when a boom of consoles, PCs and 3D graphics made video games mainstream, with every house having at least one type of video game.

That boom had little change in the shape of how the games were teaching children about the world. There was still a task, a reward, and some work to do. Even though, by the end of the day, any task you performed during the game was worthless in real life, what you learnt, that is that you need to perform a task well enough to get a prize, and that the prize is proportional to the hard work you put in, was learnt for life.

Social Gaming

Enter the era of social gaming. Zynga and other Facebook games were made not to entertain, or to give prizes for specific tasks, but to reward the most socially active player. All that, of course, in order to give Facebook a boost in user numbers (and Zynga a boost in fake value), but that not only changed how games were played, but it changed the lessons that we learnt from them.

On a social game, since the objective is to share more than others, you’ll get things for free to share with your friends, who would also get free stuff to share with you. It means that, whoever got the most “friends”, got most free stuff, and progressed faster and longer in the game. What it’s teaching you is that you don’t need to work hard for something, you just need to convince people to give you for free, or even worse, you just need to wait to get it, because it’s the player’s right to receive.

Now, what children are learning with these games is that they don’t need to work hard for anything, because they have the right to be happy, the right to be fed, the right to be given jobs, or be subsided by the government.

If that sounds a lot like reality, well, welcome to the brave new world!

Addiction

So, we know how powerful Facebook is, and much of that came from the games section at the beginning, that forced people to spend more time on Facebook than on real life, and now it’s just an addiction that they cannot get free. The reason why it’s an addiction is the very same why Heroine is an addiction.

Whenever you use a psychotropic drug, your brain goes to a state that is not real. Whatever you feel, whatever you see is not real. You can see good things, or bad things, and that will change how your addiction will continue, but some drugs are more powerful that that. For instance, tobacco changes the concentration that your brain and peripheral nervous system respond to neurotransmitters, and that’s because nicotine is a joker in the land of neurotransmitters. It can trigger more than half of the different types of receptors in your body. Whenever you lower that concentration (by abstaining), your body doesn’t react like you would want, and you have withdraw, which compels you to smoke again.

Most drugs have the same effect, including easy over-rewarding video games. Note that not all video games act like drugs, it’s just the specific class of games where you get more than what you deserve for the amount of work you put in. And that’s the same kind of addiction that people have with films, series, books and anything that will take you away from the harsh reality into a land of dreams where you are more than you can actually accomplish (super hero) or you have accomplished more than you actually worked for it (fantasy and feel-good stories).

The crucial bit here is that, going back to reality is hard, painful and has a deep feeling of loss, since all the “hard work” you put during the game/film/book is gone and worthless. That feeling puts you into a dilemma: now that you lost a lot of time in reality that you could be doing something useful, while other people are already harvesting the fruits of their own works (a younger child playing piano or solving puzzles you cannot), you’ll have to work much harder to achieve the same level. Whereas, if you go back to the game, you’ll get instant satisfaction with very little effort. If you have no responsibilities in your life, the choice is easy.

Conflict

This creates a conflict with the parents because, not only they had to work hard for upbringing their children on the best environment possible, but they’re also seeing their children wast their time on a false reality while not understanding why the parent’s reality is so different from their own.

I played video games since I was very young and still play them constantly, but I simply cannot play social games. They feel wrong, false and demeaning of the very hard work that I learnt as a kid to foster. Moreover, they remind me of the kind of society we live today where children can’t fail.

For example, in Brazil, not enough people were reaching universities because they would fail so many times that they’d drop school and never bother. How do you fix this? Simple, make a law where kids younger than 10 cannot fail. Ever. Well, surprise, they reached 10 without being able to read or write, and that’s the state’s fault, so how do you fix this? Even simpler, pass a law where kids under 15 cannot fail. You get the idea.

This over protection that schools have on kids, society trying to avoid the problems of growing up and taking responsibility until very late, is possibly responsible for the increase in criminality of the new youth and the will of some people to reduce the criminal age to 16. It’s not hard to see that, again, that solution is only going to make things worse by treating children like adults without given them a chance to understand adulthood before it’s too late.

Game playing society

Since social gaming became so mainstream a few years ago, people started noticing how to use that for benefit and profit. Real life games, like fourSquare give you prizes for over-consumption, on the grounds that sharing your personal information is worthless for you, but not for them. Games where you feel you’re giving a worthless commodity (your privacy) for big rewards (a cup of coffee) but in reality the companies are getting the real profit (your private information) is where our society is leading and it doesn’t seem to bother many people.

We are already brainwashed to believe that sharing personal emails with Google is ok, as long as they keep the servers up. We put our credit card numbers on Amazon for the comfort of not having to type them so often on the trust that they will protect your data as if it was their own. We already believe that the cloud is the best place to store your photos, documents and music. While all of that looks free to you, it’s far from. It’s all a game, where you are being cheated while willingly cooperating, but they keep your profit positive (albeit small), so that you feel valued.

We already let our guard down, we’re living in that fantasy where we don’t have to work hard for anything, convinced ourselves that the profit is ours and in this fantasy world, we’re great. Easy pray to an ever relaxing predators. Maybe that will be the end of them… I hope.

Playing the wrong game

Now we pause to go back to the main theme: why people play a one-off game when they should actually play a rolling game?

100 years ago, justice wasn’t very just. Judge and executioner were often the same person, and people paid a lot more than they should for crimes that they may have not even committed. But as bad as it was, that taught a lesson to most people that the odds of cheating weren’t that great. The price was too high, and they’d see it far too often.

Years pass, people agree that totalitarian regimes are not nice and we come with democracy, republics and other less radical governments. Now, people have rights, inalienable and universal. Governments have to protect people, and people can now be what they want, follow their dreams and collect the fruits of their hard work. And the more educated people get, the more they realise they can get more rights.

In itself, having rights is the right thing to do (pun intended), but there has to be a balance, and the balance is the social interactions. Your rights are the same as everyone else, and you can’t just do what you “want”, but what you have the right to do. Well, clever people can turn those concepts around and they will cheat, and they will profit. Because they have to be protected by law, they will find ways of abusing the system short of breaking the law. If they get caught, the price is high, but since they have more rights than duties, and since justice is less impressive (but more just) nowadays, the feeling of cost and profits are skewed, so people cheat more often that they would if thinking straight.

We can’t have the concept of born rights without having the concept of born duties. You have the right to education, but you also have the duty to follow it through, no matter how hard it seems. It’s the teachers’ duty to do their best to make it more efficient (not easier), but it’s also their right to chose what they think it’s best for the kids. If rights and duty don’t go hand-in-hand, you get a lazy generation that thinks other people have to do whatever they want. Today, children will think that of their parents, what about tomorrow? Will they expect that their children will have to work for them? Or their brothers? It doesn’t add up. They’re not playing a rolling game, but a one-off one.

When you thrown the over-rewarding games into the mix, you get kids learning that they can just be lazy and the world will fix it for them while they get cheap happiness on their tablets. They’re cheating the system that protects them until they turn 18 when the system will just abandon them, and the hard reality will hit them in the face with no preparedness and no warning. Some survive, some don’t. Would you take a chance with your children?

Hypocrite Internet Freedom

Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.

To quote Ars Technica:

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.

Or New Scientist:

This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.

And stressing that:

WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.

When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.

Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:

the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.

But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.

But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.

Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.

Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.

So, would ITU control be better?

No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.

A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.

In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.

Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.

Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.

Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.

What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?

Mad Max Internet

I don’t think so.

It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.

Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.

We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?

The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.

Regulating multi-body

It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.

I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.

Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.

The general terms would be something like:

  1. There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
  2. There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
  3. It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
  4. Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
  5. Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules

Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.

Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.

It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.

Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.

However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.

Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.

Conclusion

ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.

I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.

The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).

In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.

Sigh…