TOC Back to the Middle Ages through Sherwood Forest Your Turn

Experience tells you your glass is likely to prove half-full, half-empty. Wisdom warms your heart at the sight of the half which is full and challenges your strength to fill the half which is empty.

According to a report filed by Christopher Conkey (1), the Federal Trade Commission is actively stamping out the activities of pretexters and the data brokers who fence their ill-gotten confidential data. True, the current Congress buried the ID theft scare of 2005 under bills as numerous as they proved ineffective (see 10/03 fillip). The reader is thus entitled to predict the same fate to the bills against phone record pretexting which follow the recent Hewlett-Packard boardroom farce (see 9/12 fillip). However respected federal agencies such as the FTC can help turn fashionable bills into factual laws, especially when influential lobbyists happen to be implicit allies. Phone companies after all do not profit from phone pretexting. Meanwhile I have the dream that one day data brokers will wake up to the fact that their added-value does not rest on fencing consumer data but on providing needed recommendation services (see 5/23 and 9/12 fillips).

On a minor note I also dream my 7/25 fillip, which lampooned the Financial Times marketing practices, inspired the improvements visible in the latest version of its reader survey (2). Chronological order is not a proof of causality and the improvements are of style more than substance. But imagine like-minded readers can get the crew of the Titanic to rearrange the chairs on the passenger decks. As long as the final catastrophe has not struck, there is hope too its captain will modify the sailing orders and its designers strengthen the structure. Contrary to the prophets of doom, I believe the ship of marketing does not have to continue to hurtle at full speed towards the iceberg of eprivacy (6/13 fillip).

Dreams should not hide reality. Alain Minc and Jacques Attali (3)(4), two well known members of the French intelligentsia, have repeatedly warned us that Western civilization is heading towards "New Middle Ages". The threat is not as dire for French as it is for Americans. While the latter tend to condemn the entire period under the label "Dark Ages", the former readily recall its explosive vitality during the XIth-XIIIth century renaissance. Such historical perceptions are besides the point. The crux of their argument is that the State is steadily losing power to multinational organizations on the one hand and ethnic communities on the other. As the laws of the land are no longer enforced and respected, the elemental need for protection gives rise to a myriad of new powers and drives former citizens into their allegiance, thus recreating feudalism.

More modestly we focus on the need for eprivacy. Taking Doreen Carvajal's article on spam (*) as an example, one can see Alain Minc and Jacques Attali have a point. Recall the statistics that 60% of all email is spam (see 6/27 fillip). Doreen Carvajal provides another staggering figure from the OECD: 203 billion messages identified as spam in the last quarter of 2005. What Internet user would deny a need to be protected from such a scourge? Yet are states effective in fighting it? Despite the passing of new laws and the success of some highly promoted prosecutions (5), I am afraid the answer is a resounding no. My Internet Access Provider is the actual agent who filters spam before it reaches my mailbox and 90% of the emails I receive are still unwanted.

The problem with the new lords is not that they fail to do their job. Their filters and their black lists do keep the current email system in passable working order. But like the old lords who stepped in as Roman law and order subsided, the new lords are rather short on democratic control. We the peasants wake up to find ourselves protected, powerless serfs.

Over the past several weeks (8/22, 9/12, 9/26, 10/10) we have examined different recommendation schemes through which one can gain confidence while using the Internet. A spam blacklister such as the Spamhaus Project (5) is nothing but a negative recommendation system and falls under the same analysis criteria: decentralisation, responsibility and process. While Spamhaus is to be lauded for its dedication and efficient use of resources, it fails on process, precisely where all the other recommendation mechanisms are found at fault. Its decisions lack transparency and protests are ineffectual. Doreen Carvajal zeroes on this issue and duly notes the Department of Trade and Industry of the United Kingdom, where Spamhaus is located, is trying to "make [their] system of blacklisting [...] more transparent, with a well defined procedure for those who want to challenge their placement on the list".

More disheartening still is the fact that the State is undermined by the encroachment of other lords, by virtue of their economic power. Whether in the United States or the United Kingdom, or France for that matter (6), do not expect Internet users to be asked for their definition of spam lest they demand unwanted commercial messages be considered as spam as they should be. Under the eyes of legislators for sale (10/3 fillip), the lords of marketing battle it out with the lords of filtering, while serf time is deemed a free resource (06/27 fillip).

Legend has it poor peasants pressured by greedy lords were once helped by Robin Hood. Pardon my scepticism. Robbing the rich to give to the poor is but a clever marketing slogan. According to what standards did Robin Hood classify his prey as being rich or poor? Robin Hood took the law in his hands and treated travellers through Sherwood Forest as arbitrarily as the lords whom he used as foils.

Robin Hood is the prototype for all hackers. While he justified himself by pointing to the lords' untrammeled wantonness, the same lords used him to justify increasing the surveillance of everyone's actions. If Alain Minc's and Jacques Attali's warnings go unheeded, this is indeed a scary thought. Squeezed by lords from above and highwaymen from below, the middle class has no recourse but to accept serfdom or escape into Sherwood Forest and turn highwaymen themselves.

Whether ePrio's technology (see 6/20 fillip) brings a revolution now or we must wait a few centuries for the next Renaissance, I leave to the reader. Will the glass prove to be neither so full nor so empty?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*)......Defending a Blurred Line: Is It Spam or Just a Company Marketing by E-Mail, by Doreen Carvajal (International Herald Tribune)
    ...........courtesy of the New York Times - October 16, 2006
    • (1) FTC Tries to Fight Phone Pretexting but Has Few Weapons, by Christopher Conkey (The Wall Street Journal) - October 2006
    • (2) Business Education supplement reader survey, by Anita Hague (Financial Times) - October, 2006
    • (3) Although the English version of Wikipedia mentions Jacques Attali, the reader is urged to consult the French version for both Alain Minc and him
    • (4) In the spirit of full disclosure, I happen to be an alumnus of the same school and of the same branch of the French civil service as Jacques Attali.
    • (5) for more information, see the chapter on spam in my lecture series
    • (6) to find how French companies such as SNCF abuse their power to flout the antispam laws, see "bundle opt in" in my lecture notes on spam
October 2006
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