Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms

In the 1980s, when the global internet emerged, it was a network of decentralised computers in different universities across countries. By the 1990s, with Tim Berner Lee’s World Wide Web, any node across this network, could access any information. As storage capacity and data access speeds increased, this was quickly taken over mostly US-based companies, offering free products to users.

When social networks first began more than 20 years ago, there was a sense of freedom. Everyone with global internet access and who could communicate in global Internet languages, anywhere in the world, could get online and share their stories on Facebook and Twitter, interact and voice their lived experiences. The Arab Spring protests in the 2010s was celebrated as the high point of this new online, seamless freedom.

(First published as a column in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

Global Internet companies quickly advocated this idea of a global, frameless, free online space which had no visa requirement or restrictions, a truly democratic space to operate in. The idea that a company created to maximise profit for its shareholders can make a democratic system for interaction is in itself perhaps ludicrous. However, the soma of this dream was drunk by not only users but also by Silicon Valley investors and founders, who insisted they could change the world without ever leaving their little white echo chambers.

(Read part one of this column here.)

Continue reading “Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms”

Why WhatsApp policy is different for EU than for India

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy popped on my screen a lazy morning a couple of weeks ago, spreading its black-on-white legalese. Unlike most people who groan at the idea of reading clauses when all they want to do is scroll through good morning messages, I was filled with a sense of joy and determined purpose.

(First published as a opinion piece in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

The new WhatsApp policy was a perfect morning coffee read. Dry legal language tuned into a friendly voice made legalese accessible, and told you how WhatsApp had to, for your own good, “receive or collect some information to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market” their services. The way corporate lawyers use the English language to confound, hide and protect their company’s interests is a lesson in the art of writing.

The policy’s friendly voice announced that WhatsApp would share your user information (name, email, phone number, IP address, device settings) with Facebook and its group of companies and reminded you that it was all so you could interact with businesses better. I shrugged. The company had to make its money. No one could offer you an encrypted chat platform for free for long.

Different Whatsapp policies for different countries

What struck me was that WhatsApp had come up with two policies—two different legal contracts for two regions of the world. One for European Union (EU) citizens and the other for non-EU ones. The two policies clearly pointed to the direction in which internet companies have been moving for the past few years, tailoring policies to reflect the boundaries of countries they operate in.

(Read: Is internet freedom dead?)

For citizens of the EU and Ireland, WhatsApp’s privacy policy gives them more control of their data. The contract that Indians and the rest of the world sign with WhatsApp LLC is legally based in the US, with special data control privileges for citizens of US and Canada. If you’re from the ‘rest of the world’—as India is with about 150 other countries—you have no legal jurisdiction over your data as a user of the service in your country.

Political affiliations and origin of the country also reflect in policy. For example, WhatsApp’s new policy states that the app will not be available to countries with US-sanctions. I checked with my Iranian friends and a lot of US services, including Apple’s iTunes, are not available to them.

(Continued in a second upcoming post, here)

Is Internet freedom dead?

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Internet. For many it represents freedom, democracy and equality. However, the way internet is going now, it seems that it’s simply mirroring the realities of our real lives. It is building similar power structures and has enhanced human insecurities and the difference between have-its and have-nots. Pokemon was one example. The poor cousins in India never got to play it. Gender inequality and bullying is beautifully rampant in the annals of comments on every blog. Which is why when I came across this article by Jennifer Granick, the director of Civil Liberties at the Center for Internet and Society, I was nodding my head at most of the things. Here’s what she says about the internet:

Twenty years from now,

• You won’t necessarily know anything about the decisions that affect your rights, like whether you get a loan, a job, or if a car runs over you. Things will get decided by data-crunching computer algorithms and no human will really be able to understand why.

• The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation we envisioned 20 years ago.

• Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this will be particularly true for security.

•Internet technology design increasingly facilitates rather than defeats censorship and control.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But to change course, we need to ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions.


Now this is a scary scenario and something that we might see coming after all as our dependence on algorithms and what we want increases. See the video of the speech below or reach the complete speech over at Backchannel.


How do you feel? Are you still positive about the change that Internet can bring in to our lives or do you think it simply reflects the issues already entrenched in our society?

Log off from the internet, step by step

A 101 on removing your personal data from the Internet. But be warned: it’s a painful exercise

Want an academic paper? Head to pirate site Sci-Hub

There’s something quite weird happening in the academic community. Scientists and professors write papers which are meant for other scientists to read and expand their own knowledge as well as add to it.  They send these papers to journals where they get published. Most scientists and researchers would get promotions, cushy jobs or academic positions on the basis of the number of their publications. Which is great.

Except most of the scientific community sends these papers to journals for FREE. The journals belong to big-fat private publishers, mostly based in the USA.  For this free content, the publishers ask for copyright in exchange for publishing. Then the publishers put up all this knowledge for sale. They charge a bomb for access to these journals. The richer Western universities can afford to pay these costs, but scientists in poorer countries don’t have access. Many of them can’t even pay for it even with money as the IP address of their countries can’t cross  the journal’s copyright firewalls.  What’s stinkier is that it’s not like these publishers are paying the original authors (the scientists) any royalties for earning out of their work. They pocket everything. And if the author shares her paper with someone else, they might face a lawsuit from the publisher. Stupid, right?

Which is why I wholeheartedly approve of what Kazakhstan citizen Alexandra Elbakyan did when she faced the problem of access to papers in her field. Instead of heading to Twitter and asking for academic papers with #IcanhazPDF:

She became a pirate.

Alexandra used her computer skills and put all papers from all publishers online, for free, for anyone to access. And that’s how Sci-Hub was born. You can head there now, search for something and see what kind of papers you find.

Continue reading “Want an academic paper? Head to pirate site Sci-Hub”

How to be invisible online

In an age when we’re slowly losing our privacy, here’s what you can do to hide your tracks

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The days of privacy online are fast coming to an end. In April, the Union government quietly began rolling out the Central Monitoring System (CMS), a one-stop surveillance service that will monitor not only your cellphones (voice calls, SMS, MMS) but also your online activity (social networking sites, browsing content, and possibly more).

Much like the PRISM surveillance programme run by the US government (which collects the personal online information of its citizens without informing them), the CMS can bypass mobile companies and dig directly into phone calls, texts, emails and social media activity. PRISM was largely unknown to the public until a whistleblower disclosed the details recently after fleeing to Hong Kong.

“If the government wants to track certain people for the security of this country, that’s not the problem,” says Delhi-based Anja Kovacs, project director of the Internet Democracy Project, which researches on and advocates online freedom. “The problem is that there’s no clarity from the government on who can see what all of this private information about you. Who can access your information? Under what circumstances and why?”

By law, all cyber cafés in the country are already supposed to keep a log on who you are and which sites you visited while at the café. Even activity on private Internet connections is tracked by your Internet service provider (ISP), which is legally bound to share it with government agencies if requested.

“Ideally all of us should have a choice to be anonymous. What if I have some embarrassing sexually-transmitted disease on which I am talking to a doctor online? I am not doing anything illegal but it’s embarrassing for me if someone finds out about it,” says Kovacs. There are times when you don’t want anyone, be it your ISP, the government, the media, your neighbour, your spouse, or Trojan Horses to peep into what you are doing. For those times, here’s how you can become “almost” invisible online.

■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

Create a private network

Who doesn’t like the word free? It’s quite tempting to use free Wi-Fi on your smartphone while waiting for that flight or having a cup of coffee, but it’s far from safe. Data sent across a public Wi-Fi is usually completely unencrypted, so to spy on you, people only need to be on the same Wi-Fi network as you.

To avoid this and still use the free Wi-Fi, install Hamachi, which creates a Virtual Private Network (VPN) between two computers via the Internet. Once installed, you can connect to your always-on home computer through the public Wi-Fi and then visit any websites securely.

Hamachi is free and works for Windows, OS X and Linux.

Stash the cookies

Cookies are those tiny little logs that websites dump on your computer every time you visit them. With these on your computer, the websites can then track your activity on their pages and sometimes (as in the case of the Facebook “Like” button or the Twitter “Follow” button), even track your activity on other websites. These cookies can be blocked with a simple plug-in DoNotTrackMe.

DoNotTrackMe is free and can be used for Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

Clean it all

Begin with a clean chit by deleting all the temporary files, history and cookies indices your usual Internet browser might have stored about you. All in the name of better service or quicker loading. CCleaner is the ultimate broomstick that will wipe away all the flotsam from Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, Safari and log files from both Windows and Mac PCs.

CCleaner is available for Rs.1,593.63.

Tidy up the torrents

Every time you’re using torrents to share files, the ISP can track your name, and also track where you’re downloading the files from. If you’re downloading anything personal in nature, then it’s best to add protection by using the BTGuard, which is a proxy server and encryption service.

The BTGuard uses a virtual fake address to funnel your Internet traffic through another server, so that it cannot be traced back to you.

BTGuard costs $6.95 (around Rs.415) a month or $59.95 for 12 months.

Keep the firewall up

You might be protected and anonymous to your Internet service provider (ISP) and hide your computer’s identity, but simple Trojan Horses can grab those documents from right under your nose and send them off to someone else. The solution is a Firewall, a necessary evil for today’s connected times. Either Avast or Clamav will protect your computer from trojans, viruses, malware and malicious threats.

Avast Antivirus works for Windows and Mac and Clamav works for Windows. Both are free.

Encrypt emails

When you send an email to someone, its plain text passes through servers across countries, making copies. Which means that anyone who can access any of those servers can read the message. Companies monitor the emails sent by employees and governments monitor the emails sent by citizens. The most problematic are phishing networks which might be able to abuse private message content sent in an email.

All this can be checked if the message is an encrypted one, not plain text. The easiest email client for this is Mozilla Thunderbird—an email client like Microsoft Outlook, but with better security. With an Enigmail extension, it lets you encrypt the email by clicking a little key icon on the lower right of the Compose windows.

Mozilla Thunderbird is free and works for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.

Use a Web-based proxy

Just like your home, your computer has a unique address called its Internet Protocol or IP address. When you log in online or open a Web page, this address goes through your Internet service provider (ISP) to the website you are trying to log in to. Both the website and the ISP use that IP to track your activity. A Web-based proxy creates a virtual address for your computer so that your real IP address remains hidden when you are online. Proxify (Proxify.com) is a paid, one-click install system for Windows or Mac or Firefox browsers which encrypts all communication and hides your IP address. If you don’t mind advertisements, there are many online Web-proxies you can use to get a virtual IP address.

For a list of free online services head to Free Proxy (www.freeproxy.ca). But do remember that any proxy website you use may be able to see and store your user names, passwords, credit information, etc. Or, in some cases, even read your email. Because of this, a paid service is generally a safer option.

Proxify is available for Rs.2,400 for three months.

 

First published on Jun 25, 2013 Mint. Read the complete article here.

I blog for internet

Internet is a life-savior for me. I cannot imagine not checking out my emails, blogs and videos that have refreshingly non-censored language and sometimes when I have time (and inclination), even porn. So I write to support the Black Out Day today. I write to support the action against a supposed ‘democracy’ trying to stuff of the biggest democracy in the world – the INTERNET! Stand together people, because we have to do this soon in our country as well if Kapil Sibal has his way. Here’s something to keep you smiling in grim times. I am embedding more because soon I might not be able to do it at all.

 

 

Protest against what’s happening in USA now by visiting www.internetcensorship.org and signing a petition meant to come from international users.

 

PS: Is that how activists happen? You are just sitting around doing your things and then something comes along that doesn’t let you do them. So you have no choice but to protest against it, no?

Caught in the net

Try these smart ways to keep a check on your Internet addiction. By Shweta Taneja

 

It’s a connected world out there. So much so that most of us cannot think of life without a phone or access to the Internet—even when on holiday.

Take control: Learn how to disconnect from the online world and organize your daily Internet use.

Take control: Learn how to disconnect from the online world and organize your daily Internet use.

“When I am hiking and I force myself to disconnect from the online world, I feel alone. I feel like there’s so much of the trip that I would like to share with my online friends,” says Hrish Thotaa, a 31-year-old social media professional and self-proclaimed Twitter addict who spends 8-9 hours on social networking sites and chats, and 3-4 hours on email. “I spend my entire waking time online,” explains Thotaa.

A study called A Day without Media was conducted in 2010 by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, University of Maryland, US. The study had asked 200 students at the university to abstain from using all media for 24 hours. They then had to blog (http://withoutmedia.wordpress.com) about their experiences. “Although I started the day feeling good, I noticed my mood started to change around noon. I started to feel isolated and lonely. I received several phone calls that I could not answer,” wrote one student on the blog after the 24-hour fast (the website did not give out names). “By 2pm, I began to feel the urgent need to check my email, and even thought of a million ideas of why I had to. I felt like a person on a deserted island… I noticed physically that I began to fidget, as if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices, and maybe I am.”

“Most youngsters cannot imagine their lives without cellphones and the online world today,” says Jitendra Nagpal, consultant, psychiatry, Moolchand hospital, New Delhi. “They feel anxious or stressed when they lose connectivity, be it because (the) battery has run out, they are in an area with no connectivity, or they have no balance left,” he explains. Psychologists have a word for those who make it an obsession: Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).

Addiction to the World Wide Web is a very real issue. You can see the signs everywhere around you nowadays: a fidgety colleague who needs to constantly tweet, a friend who clicks the refresh button on Facebook hoping to see something new while on a dinner date, or you realizing at the end of a day that you have been browsing the Internet for so long that the afternoon has passed and you still have a pile of work to get through.

“Procrastination is the greatest demon of being connected,” says Sasank T., a 25-year-old marketing manager based in Bangalore. Sasank scored 58 on an Internet Addiction Quiz (www.netaddiction.com), a score which suggests that he might be facing some problems at work because of the long hours he spends online.

“I have had to work nights as I skipped deadlines since I was online for the whole day in office,” Sasank says. “There are times when many days go by doing nothing but browsing my favourite sites.” The only time Sasank disconnects is when his laptop heats up and gets switched off; and then the phone comes in. If, like Sasank, you can’t let go of the online urge, here are some tools that can help you:

Detect your time wasters

Wisdom has it that a 2-minute break on Facebook can last for hours. A second on a site can never last a second. Each one of us has sites that we love wasting our time on.

Try this tool: SelfControl (http://visitsteve.com/made/selfcontrol) is a free software that allows you to restrict the time you spend on social networking sites, gaming forums or shopping sites. Simply install the software and add any domain name to its blacklist, like Facebook.com. Then put on a timer and tell the software how long you want to use that domain in a day (from 1 minute to 12 hours). Once you have spent that much time on that particular site in a day, it will be blocked from your browser for the rest of the day. All the other sites will work just fine. SelfControl takes addictions seriously. The app was planned as an extreme measure, so use it only if you are not going to change your mind—deleting the application or rebooting your computer will not help unblock the particular site.

Continue reading “Caught in the net”