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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 24 August 2018, 3:45 pm

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Three news stories this week mean we must surely give pause for a moment and reflect on what is going on with the internet.

The three stories relate to Microsoft and Facebook policing the internet.

The first story - Microsoft shuts down a dozen sites that would potentially have been used for phishing attacks on people trying to connect with US senate organisations or with right wing think tanks.

The second is that Facebook (motto: no content too shameful) has introduced a reputation score so it can try to assess whether those people complaining about fake news are real or just trying to get real news black listed.

And the third is that Facebook is shocked, shocked! to discover that there are hundreds of fake pages posted by Iranian and Russian organisations cluttering up the otherwise pristine landscape of social engagement and cohesion that is the book of face.

Each on their own speak to a certain move by these giants of the tech world to better manage the internet. Yes, it's the wild west out there, but more importantly these days, it's the wild west with cold war propaganda and PsyOps campaigns flooding our timelines.

So good on them for cleaning up a bit and doing what's right.

Sure, Facebook could go a lot further and do something with the billions of dollars it has sucked out of the mainstream media market by way of providing some kind of editorial control over its posts (and once again, this isn't a free speech issue, this is a "abide by the law regarding defamation and don't pass off fiction as fact" issue) just as the newspapers of old used to do.

But it's good to see them do something, I suppose, even though I do still have the cynical view that this is the bear minimum in no small part because Facebook relies on people clicking on stuff in order to make a buck and if it limits the stuff, fewer people will presumably make few clicks and the coffers will run dry (for a very very wet definition of the word "dry").

And Microsoft clearly still has a role to play in terms of seizing domains and working with The Authorities to ensure this Doesn't Happen Again and so forth.

And they're both doing more than Twitter which is about to implode if it doesn't figure out how to please the people who use the service while simultaneously not upsetting the Nazis (I don't know it's a well-thought-out business model but hey, what do I know?).

But it does leave me wondering: just who is going to police these mega-corporations in their quest to police the internet?

I am reminded of the Curious Case of Sterling Ball, a small but lucrative guitar string maker in the US that found itself a poster-child for Linux deployments in corporate America.

Sterling Ball was raided by the BSA and found to have more PCs running Windows than it had licences for. In this case, the BSA is not the Broadcasting Standards Authority, but rather the Business Software Alliance, a Microsoft-led initiative designed to work with law enforcement agencies like the FBI to root out those nefarious scoundrels that were stealing copyright works from under Microsoft's nose.

In 2000, Sterling Ball pleaded guilty to having unlicenced copies of Microsoft and settled the case for US$100,000. The CEO of the family run business then told his IT manager to uninstall everything Microsoft and find an alternative.

"I said, 'I don't care if we have to buy 10,000 abacuses, we won't do business with someone who treats us poorly.'"

That story always stuck with me because Microsoft had set up its own enforcement arm that was quite happy to kick in the door and arrest customers. What happens in an online world if we abdicate responsibility to our tech partners? Will we find Amazon removing books from our Kindles? Will Apple remove music from my iPhone? Will Facebook uninstall me so nobody can ever talk to me again?

In many respects what we're doing by allowing or even requiring these companies to take on such roles is a continuation of what's gone before. We allowed Facebook to devastate the mainstream media with its un-edited, un-moderated content which it called news and ended up in a pickle. Now we're asking them to fix the problem for us. It's yet more abdication of responsibility, another way of saying "we can't do this, it's too hard. You do it for us," and hoping they play nicely.

Given they're all corporates hell bent on running our lives forever, I can't see how it will end well.

Techblog - Microsoft moves to shut down alleged Russian phishing sites

BBC - Facebook gives users trustworthiness score

Washington Post - Facebook is rating the trustworthiness of its users on a scale from zero to 1

Ars Technica - Facebook: Iran has been posting hundreds of fake pages since 2011

CNN - Facebook takes down 652 pages after finding disinformation campaigns run from Iran and Russia

The Spin Off - The real ratings of NZ's news sites shows some have a big problem

CNET - Rockin' on without Microsoft (August, 2003)

The FB Sheriff.jpg


Top Gear

All around the telco world, loins are being girded as the need to plunk down some serious cash to buy spectrum licences to operate 5G networks looms large.

It's a constant conundrum in the telco world - how best to balance the need to keep customers satisfied (typically these days this satisfaction is measured in terms of network speed) with the cost of providing that service (billions to roll out a new network) divided by the price you can charge a customer for that exciting new network (slightly more than you charge today, but with massive upgrades in terms of data limits and so on).

Given the razor thin margins telcos operate under, is it any wonder there's already a lot of noise about the impending price governments will ask them to pay for spectrum rights?

Now before you start feeling too sorry for the telcos (I know, unlikely but still plausible) do remember that they make a lot of money and if they can afford fancy downtown offices they can surely afford a few mill for the licence they need to operate a network.

Plus of course they'll need some pinga for the new network gear they'll have to buy.

In the old days this was a foot race between Nokia and Ericsson until along came Alcatel-Lucent to provide a bit of competition. But that was in the 3G world and frankly we haven't lived there for a long time. These days, network kit comes typically from China and in particular from Huawei which has long since taken the reins of the network industry and now drives it along at a fair clip.

Huawei has a problem, however. The Americans don't trust them and claim they're part of a Nefarious Plot to gain access to all of America's secrets.

Putting aside for a moment the idea that America's secrets aren't being played out for all to see one tweet and one plea bargain at a time, and putting aside the idea that other network equipment makers haven't been siding with various national governments for years (looking at you, Nokia), you have to wonder if this concern is real or if it's an excuse for a swift round of trade exclusions using security as a cover.

But that's America for you, and in the rest of the world Huawei has pressed on regardless. In the UK it even offered up a software lab wherein sceptical UK folk could analyse the software and firmware of all its network gear to determine whether there's anything underhand going on.

But in the US tier one telcos (the big guys) aren't allowed to use Huawei gear. In Little America (aka Australia, motto: We can replace our Prime Ministers just as often as the Italians if we want) they've followed suit and introduced a "Huawei cannot work here" rule that means Australian networks will be free of any possible Chinese spying unless of course you count all those phones that are built in Chinese factories, all those wifi repeaters and routers that are built in Shenzhen or any of the other bits of kit that may or may not be riddled with spyware on behalf of everyone else.

Good work.

ZDNet - Australian government bans Chinese vendors for 5G

Financial Times - Why the UK has national security fears over China's Huawei

The Register - Australia blocks Huawei, ZTE from 5G rollout

The Guardian - Huawei P20 Pro review - the three-camera iPhone killer


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