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Some things I learned at NetHui

Tim McNamara - July 4, 2011 in Events

NetHui was an amazing event. I’m delighted to have participated. Thanks also to everyone who managed to come along to my session on the impact that digital communities can have on emergency response and recovery. This the first of a few posts I hope to make on the event, and it relates to things that I have taken away personally.

Things that I’ve learned

New Zealand is special

There is something unique here. It enables cabinet ministers to engage with hackers face to face. All of the dialogue was genuine. Officials came to the meeting wanting to know more, not to simply express departmental views.

Open data is here

Government no longer needs to be encouraged to release its information. Open data advocates now really need to move towards enabling agencies to release their information. Only one of the participants seemed to question the capability of departments to move to this mode of openness and several, including the Minister of Finance, spoke in favour of it.

Access to the Internet as a human right is plausible

I went into the conference thinking that notions such as this were daft. A right to access would imply an obligation on providers to provider access. I’ve changed my view. A right to access to the Internet would not preclude providers from denying access for non-payment, it would restrict the ability for governments to prevent communication for political reasons. This means that tather than creating a sui generis right, I feel that access to the Internet sits within a long tradition of freedom of speech & expression. For example, if we follow John Milton’s view, freedom of expression contains three parts:

  • the right to seek information and ideas
  • the right to receive information and ideas
  • the right to impart information and ideas

If Internet access were to be denied for arbitrary reasons, then I think that these rights would be impaired. I can also see how the right to freedom of association could be called in. Political groups associate virtually. Therefore, to create barriers to cyberspace would be to create barriers to associate with whomever people would like.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, yhe Internet’s role of facilitating participation in society will be ever-increasing. Government agencies already use the Internet as the primary means of accessing their services. Health providers connect patients with specialists via web cams. Therefore, if these arguments are weak today, then they will strengthen over time.

Ultra-fast broadband wont be ultra-fast

Most of New Zealand’s traffic comes from off shore. This means that we’ll always be struggling with latency. TCP requires acknowledgement between sender and receiever. This means that extremely fast speeds to places which are extremely far away wont be too important.

DRM on public domain is happening

Seriously – wtf. I can understand the (misguided) rationale for using technical measures to unique and new creative works. However, to add DRM to the public domain works is contrary everything the public domain stands for. If it’s public, then no one has a right to create a monopoly.

Opinions I’ve formed

Data caps for local bandwidth are stupid

No local ISPs I know of provide access to uncapped data. That means that there’s no real incentive for local application developers to use local services. It’s always going to be better for me to store bulk content in Amazon S3 or Google Storage rather than a local provider. Until ISPs move on local data, New Zealand Internet users will always suffer from latency problems.

Cheap local data centres wont happen

Despite the fact that New Zealand has mainly hydro power, I tend to support nuclear power when I build web applications. That is, I use the services of cloud providers like Amazon & Google. I’m saddened by this, but the price of local hosting is more expensive by orders of magnitude.

Local solutions would be faster. Bandwidth is cheaper. Latency is lower. Power is renewable. Yet, while they’re much better for my New Zealand customers, they’re not better for me. Until pricing changes, local data centres wont happen.

The Internet builds monopolies

Metcalfe’s Law is extremely powerful. Large providers will consistently pull people magnetically towards them. This creates opportunities for vertically integrated products and monopoly rent seeking behaviour.

Free culture is entrenched

In opposition to this cultural magnetism, free culture is also spreading.

Content really matters

As ubiquitous broadband spreads over the country, content will be the main area for competition. Copyright owners have an opportunity to be able to add genuine value for everyone, including children who wish to remould creative works. Yet, I fear that the current content oligopolies will insist on moving their read-only, broadcast model to the Internet.

Copyright should be tempered

Copyright is purportely used to promote artists’ creations. However, I feel that it’s distributors benefit from the current system and that many artists would be better off under a different system. I’m starting to think that a pricing model that looks very similar to the broadcasting model would work really well. As a society, we shouldn’t create laws that cause inefficiency. Expensive and slow distribution methods, e.g. physical media, should make way for highly efficent modes of transport.

We have a stratified Internet culture

If there was ever an event for content industries to engage with ISPs and politicians in a public forum, NetHui was it. However, defenders of decades-long copyright protection were muted at best. I noticed at least one RIANZ member in attendance, however he never spoke up. This is a real shame. If you want to be the figurehead of your industry, you should have the resolve to speak up in the face of opposition. NetHui was an extremely cordial and polite affair. If the content industries had taken more of an opportunity to make their views heard, I’m sure they would have been negative.

Criminalising most of our society will be negative

The term criminal is generally used for a person who is part of a small fraction of society who lives who acts against the generally accepted rules of the society. There are officials in government who don’t understand that emailing a PDF report amongst colleagues is illegal. Yet they all do it. I fear that criminalising the large bulk of people will lead to a general level of resentment with politicians and officials.

Parliamentarians often speak of wanting to uphold public trust and confidence. They should listen to people. Officials need to provide better advice. The choices are not simply between the current copyright system and abolition. There are many alternatives which policy could choose between.