TOC Berners-Lee's three apologies Your Turn

December 14, 2010

I owe an apology to Tim Berners-Lee. Having structured my previous fillip on opinions of his as relayed by John Gapper (1), I should have taken the trouble to examine the source (*) of the Financial Times columnist by myself. Not only its context would have illuminated John Gapper's comments, but it would have brought me more material with which to further my defense of eprivacy.

Decision makers do not take knee jerk reactions to a voice they feel safe to ignore. No harm done, let me today take time to amend my lazyness.

Behind Tim Berners-Lee's fears for the future of the Web, there lies an impassioned apology of information sharing. In response, who would deny the benefits of sharing and the capital contribution of the father of the Web (2) in expanding their provision? But to me at least, the crucial point raised by Tim Berners-Lee is how much sharing derives from, and in turn calls for, what he calls "the separation of layers".

While obvious to any computer engineer worth his or her salt, this concept needs perhaps a layman illustration. Think of the difficulties currently facing European railways to accommodate incompatible track gauges and signaling systems across national borders. In hindsight, huge amounts of savings would have arisen from cleanly separating two layers, a universal track design below and above pan-european train services. Today's Internet communication infrastructure plays the role of a universal track design which supports Web-enabled information sharing services.

Yet how can the general public understand the losses avoided through the "open" layering of what is globally called "the Internet"? Catastrophes averted make no waves. Unfortunately much money can be gained by industrial interests if they succeed in breaking this model to create "closed" monopolies. If you are the SNCF, wouldn't you love that your French trains can travel on French tracks at a fraction of the costs of foreign trains?

This is what the quarrel on Net Neutrality is all about. US and European governments have been so hard at work to "deregulate" electrical utilities by separating generation from distribution, Yet they are reluctant to impose net neutrality to oligopolists like Comcast and Verizon Wireless ready to integrate the two in the name of "freedom from regulation"? This is pronaocracy at work for you. If it were not so sad, what a joke!

Once it was difficult in the USSR to find bibles for want of bandwidth, sorry, I meant paper. The Soviets are alive and well and living in the US.

The same concept enables Tim Berners-Lee to expose how unmoored Western governments have become. Google's position on net neutrality fluctuates with its self-interest. Similarly the interests of Western states reflect those of their electoral paymasters rather than the voters. In its first push for HADOPI, the French governement proposed to "disconnect a household from the Internet for a year if someone in the household was alleged by a media company to have ripped off music or video".

Please realize that the Internet layer itself lies above electricity distribution. Why doesn't HADOPI, later amended but still deeply flawed, compel instead electrical utilities to cancel distribution to the alleged offender? Outrageous? That's the spirit.

Layering is such a powerful concept, it also reveals how Tim Berners-Lee has become his own worst enemy.

"We should examine legal, cultural and technical options that will preserve privacy without stifling beneficial data sharing capabilites", his paper weakly concludes in answer to the open sore of privacy issues. In other words, privacy is a bother and a bore best relegated to pious wishes (3) for some future "options" to be plugged into or rather over the Web, itself correctly focused on sharing, "universality" its "primary design principle".

Time for a third apology focused on eprivacy. Unless citizen rights are to be abridged, sharing has no meaning unless it is a truly voluntary act by those who owns the information to be shared in the first place. In other words, eprivacy is not the option. Sharing is. In a democracy data rights ought to be conceived as a layer which sits, not above or within, but below the Web and any other architecture of sharing.

The Wikileaks saga is a good illustration. Justifying the disclosure by the media of the trove of confidential documents from the US, Harold Evans writes "and yet, and yet, [there] are not sufficient reasons for an editor to reject the material, or for the US to seek indictements under the Espionage Act" (**). Indeed responsibility lies not with Wikileaks, but with the unknown federal employee (4) who shared what he or she did not own.

Mirrorwise newspapers are entirely entitled to distribute their own content within pay walls, which meets with John Gapper's approval and mine.

Now I discover that Tim Berners-Lee's concern with "Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others" is not so much they prosper by plundering our own data as it is they circumscribe sharing within their respective domains. Indeed the father of the web singles out Phorm not because it snoops on our behavior, but because it does so at the communication layer rather than at the sharing layer like AOL, Amazon and countless Web services.

Tim Berners-Lee is mistaken in his priorities. If an efficient eprivacy layer were available for both individuals and corporations, what proprietary content provider would successfully forgo the benefits of an open architecture supporting its own business model? Absent such a layer however, Tim Berners-Lee is right to warn us closed worlds tend to break the universality of open layers. Without a penalty, the temptation is overwhelming.

Worse, absent an eprivacy layer, responsible sharing yields to private cyberwars among mighty lords preying on enfeebled Western governments.

Apropos Wikileaks, Noam Cohen writes "without a zone of privacy it becomes impossible for a government [...] to think" (***).

Speaking of which, shouldn't Western governments wonder how healthy it is when Paypal and MasterCard are besieged by the jacquerie directed by "the organisation behind "Operation Payback", [...] Anonymous", as reported by Tim Bradshaw and Joseph Menn (****), while Amazon and Facebook hand down private justice over their serfs, i.e. customers held to their arbitrary "terms of service"? As Miguel Helft warns, Facebook's "role as an arbiter of free speech is likely to become even more pronounced" (*****). Will the US Supreme Court become a redundant organ?

To back my apology, I claim to have invented at least part of such a privacy layer (5). In 2000, I presented its basis to the W3C (6), led today by Tim Berners-Lee. Unfortunately the W3C will consider no intellectual property unless it be handed over for free (7). I respect such a consistent call to share. I doubt it is the best route to achieve better privacy. I believe this is a flaw, ultimately fatal to sharing, Tim Berners-Lee's noble goal.

Sir Tim, sharing for free what one doesn't own is evil and what one owns saintly. Isn't sharing for a fee what one owns as useful as it is ordinary?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, by Tim Berners-Lee (Scientific American) - December, 2010
  • (**) ....... Why it was - just - right to publish the Wiki cables, by Harold Evans (Financial Times) - December 9, 2010
  • (***) ..... Wikileaks, Facebook And Perils of Oversharing, by Noam Cohen (New York Times) - December 6, 2010
  • (****) ... Online pranks given more serious twist, by Tim Bradshaw and Joseph Menn (Financial Times) - December 9, 2010
  • (*****) . Facebook's Mean Streets, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - December 13, 2010
  • (1) Why the iPad should rival the web, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - December 2, 2010
  • (2) see the entry for the Web in the Wikipedia
  • (3) if not an ineffectual pious wish, what is the P3P privacy standard unveiled by the W3C more than ten years ago already?
  • (4) (added 12/17/10) note that Private Bradley Manning has been charged of being the source of these and other leaks.
  • (5) see Patent Number 6,092,197 and Patent Application Numbers 20060053279 and 20090076914 at the US Patent and Trademark Office
  • (6) see the entry for the W3C in the Wikipedia
  • (7) full text of the W3C Patent Policy
December 2010
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