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Maria

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made a speech this morning at RUSI, the main military-focused think tank in the UK. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who when at the Ministry of Defense decided to can one fifth of the army, speaking at the same think tank that put out a report yesterday saying Hammond’s government will cut about 43,000 more soldiers – from an army of less than 100,000 – if it’s re-elected. That’s the Foreign Secretary presiding over an FCO whose Russia experts have been let go and scattered to the four winds of oil companies, think tanks and academia, because God knows the UK doesn’t need that kind of expertise. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who can barely spell Brussels, let alone bear to go there, and who is quite satisfied leading the foreign service of a country that increasingly distrusts and fears all things foreign. That one.

Hammond’s speech is easy to summarise: Russia is very mean and bad; ok fair enough, we didn’t foresee ISIS; but if only people would stop all this pointless bleating about the security services’ oversight and transparency, we could get on with our job of protecting the people of Britain. How strong. How plausible. How brave.

It’s only at the level of detail, or rather its self-serving and specious claims, that Hammond’s speech breaks down.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would legislate to ensure that cases involving national security information could be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts. And we did.’

What the government did: further entrenched secret courts and a parallel justice system where evidence against individuals cannot be seen by them or their lawyers, destroying the principle and practice of fair trial.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would strengthen independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies. And we have by making the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee of Parliament.’

What the government did: Make Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee. Whoopee. Anyone who thinks the ISC provides effective oversight should watch some video of its fawning audiences security service leaders or examine the politicised timeline and gutless redactions of its report on the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby. Failing that, examine the record of career securocrat Malcolm Rifkind, its Chair who just resigned for peddling access to the Chinese. [click to continue…]

Untimorous Beastie

by Maria on January 3, 2015

People are always asking me where my hugely fluffy and dolphin-smiling Samoyed dog, Milo, is from. ‘Northamptonshire’ always gets a laugh. He’s been a great little traveler from the first, which is probably pure luck, but I put it partly down to his general ebullience. Last April, Ed and I drove a few hours north of London to get the little beastie. We stopped off first at Ed’s old prep school, where he’d been sent from Ireland at the age of eight. It was a Sunday and they now just do weekly boarding, so we walked around the school’s silent rose garden, playing field and pond. I can’t say seeing the place helped me understand its place in his psyche any better, but he was surprised and moved to remember places and things he’d forgotten, and find the new-old memories were happier than he’d thought. Then we went and plucked our white little furball from his own litter and drove three hours home with him on my lap. He didn’t wee or howl or soil himself, or even try to escape, poor little thing. Having no obvious traumas on that journey seemed to set him up to be a good car dog; well, so far so good, anyway.

Milo’s habits are simple and revolting. He is a proper South London dog. For the first couple of months there was nothing on the street he wouldn’t eat; spilt curry, vomited curry, styrofoam, plastic bags, used condoms and cigarette butts. He has absolutely no concept of gastrointestinal cause and effect. The first time he stayed overnight with Henry and his family in Ireland this summer, Milo crept out and gobbled half a gallon of gone-off shellfish that had been thrown away into a ditch down the road. When Ed is old and takes – finally – to warming up old stories for me, he’ll probably not count as a high point in our marriage the three a.m. pool of crustacean-laced dog-sick at the bottom of the bed and me under a pillow saying; ‘It’s too disgusting; you deal with it’.
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Happy Christmas, Timberteers!

by Maria on December 25, 2014

milo christmas 2014CT
And a very happy holiday to non-Christmas celebrators, and a good and healthy and fruitful and happy 2015 to all our readers and commenters.

Yours, Milo (the dog Crooked Timber commenters named…)

PR to PM, not much of a stretch

by Maria on November 26, 2014

PR Strategy: “TECH COMPANIES MUST DO MORE

The problem:
Britain has declining ability to get US Internet companies to share information they’re not legally obliged to.

The cause:
Snowden revelations mean US companies keen to dissociated themselves from close and informal intelligence cooperation; first to go is the UK. Also, they are using more encryption.

The media narrative:
‘Tech firms must do more in the fight against terror’

TIMELINE
The Warm-up Phase
30 September
Home Secretary tells Conservative Party conference of ‘outrageous irresponsibility’ of Liberal Democrats in blocking greater surveillance powers for the police and security services, and says Britain will ‘face down extremism in all its forms’. Also, children’s lives put at risk by the Lib Dems.

Late October
Security minister James Brokenshire meets Google, Microsoft and Facebook in Luxembourg to ‘discuss ways to tackle online extremism’.

4 November
New head of GCHQ, says on front page of the FT: Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have become “command-and-control networks… for terrorists and criminals”. They must do more to co-operate with security services.

14 November
Prime Minister addresses Australian Parliament before G20 Summit: Facebook, Google, Twitter must live up to their social responsibilities and do more to take down extremist material from the internet.

All Systems Go

Sunday 23 November
Home Secretary does the softening up – goes on television to say the terror threat is greater than ever and the “time is right” to give police and intelligence agencies greater powers to require tech firms to give more data to the government.

Monday 24 November
ISC releases its heavily redacted report on the Lee Rigby murder. It finds operational failings in the intelligence agencies:
•MI5 delays investigating Adebolajo following his arrest for suspected terror offences in Kenya;
•Failure to scrutinise his phone records – which showed contacts with overseas jihadists;
•GCHQ failing to report evidence linking Adebowale to extremists;
•Police failure to arrest Adebolajo just before the attack – on suspicion of drug-dealing – after they “lost his address”

ISC’s Chair ‘accused internet companies of providing a “safe haven” to terrorists – an unnamed tech firm had failed to recognise and hand over radical postings by Adebowale to the government – but said despite a string of failings by the security services, which had repeatedly monitored both men before the attack, there was nothing they could have done to prevent the murder of Rigby.’

Lib Dem committee member, Ming Campbell, says “It is a remarkable coincidence, some might say, that the home secretary should have chosen to make public her further proposals on the eve of the publication of the ISC report. No doubt the purpose of doing so was to link her proposals to the committee’s conclusions. The committee never considered those proposals.”

Tuesday 25 November
Prime Minister to ISC: ‘Tech firms must do more to fight extremism’
Leader of the Opposition agrees. (Well, he can’t be soft on terrorism, can he?)

Wednesday 26 November
Sun headline: FACEBOOK - BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS

To be published later today: draft bill extending police and agency powers of data access ‘to tackle extremism’.

Or you could just re-read: ‘Why this Army Wife Says ‘No’ to the Snooper’s Charter

Jerks will be jerks

by Maria on November 13, 2014

The thing about an ICANN meeting is they’re mostly men, and most of them are lovely, especially the older, very techie ones. I do the policy circuit and the 16 hour days, and I mostly skip the big industry parties. (Actually, I’m not usually invited. Probably because I’m such a blue stocking.) So I don’t usually interact with the trade show marketing types, the back end salesmen and the domainer guys.

But once, I think it was in Dakar but they all blur into one, I’d had a couple of drinks and ran into a friend I call in my heart of hearts the ‘king of the registrars’, the hard scrabble companies that sell domain names and figure out how to game any system they can get to let them in. Whatever hotel this was, it had managed to create some mystique about having a club on the top floor that didn’t advertise itself. It was the place to be. My friend convinced me and a female colleague to go up for a nightcap.

Now my colleague was six feet tall, blonde and the kind of gorgeous that makes even straight women pause to enjoy an extra look. In fact, when my boss first introduced her as his incredibly capable new assistant, we all went ‘uh-huh, sure.’ (He took it on the chin and sure enough she turned out to be the smartest on the team and pretty much indifferent to being ritually dismissed for her beauty.) So she and I catwalked out of the elevator on whatever secret floor this club was on and right into a long glitzy bar we walked the length of, got seen to be seen, and went and sat down on a magically free sofa. It was just that kind of night.

Various youngish guys we didn’t know sat down to talk, offer us drinks and wander off. I was on water by now. Holding court beside us was the alpha guy I liked to call the king. A bit like ‘the king of the travellers’, in that you don’t get it by being born – you have to fight smarter and tougher than anyone else, and a bit of charisma doesn’t hurt either. Guys would ply their differing wares to him, then us, or vice versa. One glommed on to me, probably because I was older and plainer than my colleague. The conversation started off harmlessly enough, the usual ‘what do you do’ and ‘where are you from’. He was keen to show he was also a big time domainer or domain name seller or something, and he’d keep nodding in the direction of the king.

Then things got a little strange. He would ask me a question and I’d answer it, and he’d say something rude about my answer. I wish I could remember the actual things he said. They weren’t outrageous, just mildly obnoxious. I’d nod and wait for him to say or ask something else, and then say ‘right’ or ‘is that so?’ But he was quite insistent about me giving substantive answers that he would then say rude things about in a weirdly affectless way. I remember wondering if he was Aspergers or something, which is not unknown in the technical community, though this guy seemed far more interested in money than code. I swatting that idea away. The rudeness had an edge. It was intentional.

So I said to him ‘wow, that was really quite rude, did you mean to say it?’ And he said something like ‘come on, you liked it. You know I’m in charge’. Or something equally asinine.

And then the penny dropped.

I was being chatted up by a real live Pick Up Artist!

I burst out laughing and said ‘oh my god, I don’t believe it. You’re doing that thing, aren’t you?’
‘What thing?’ he asked.
‘You know, the thing where you try and make a woman feel bad enough about herself that she’ll suck your cock.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself’, he said.

Then my little lizard brain stirred deep down in the folds of the amygdala and said to me ‘you know what will work best here, don’t you?’. And I thought to myself, this doesn’t make me a good feminist, but it will be nasty good fun.

I turned to the king and said, over the guy’s head, ‘you’ll never believe what this guy just tried on. He negged me. Have you heard of that? The whole PUA thing?’

‘What, him?’ the king said, laughing, to us both. ‘Little jerk. Is he even old enough?’

And the little jerk slunk away, defeated.

Oh how we laughed.
Patriarchy. You’ve gotta love it.

Farewell to all that

by Maria on October 26, 2014

The Union Jack came down in Camp Bastion today, marking the end of the UK’s combat role in Afghanistan and its misconceived campaign in Helmand Province; the campaign with no strategy, less chance of success and a gossamer-thin plan. It has come to a dignified end with a choir of establishment generals (is there any other kind?) and politicians serenely harmonising the nation’s oldest hymns; ‘mistakes were made’, and ‘perhaps we might have done it differently’.

Nineteen billion pounds. Twenty thousand Afghan civilians. Four hundred and fifty three UK soldiers. More Afghan National Army killed last summer than UK troops throughout the whole war. More poppy seed than ever growing in Helmand, but lots more children in school, too.

Was it worth it? Well if you’ve figured out a workable and not-obscene calculus of human pain and worthwhile profit, let the rest of us know.

I knew one of the four hundred and fifty three, but only superficially. He was deputed one autumn evening to squire me around the officers’ mess when E was already gone. He made sure I had drinks and was warm enough, saw me into the dining room, flirted chastely back and manfully ignored the younger women. It was like something out of Thackeray. Beautiful manners on the eve of battle.

The other senior wife and I went to his funeral, along with the welfare officer, representing the battalion. The men wouldn’t be home for months. As an Irish woman, I had never expected to be dressed in black, walking slowly through a seated congregation to a reserved pew at the front, next to a coffin with a Union Jack on. The gloves and belt were the hardest to look at. No one cried. Not obviously, anyway.

Later, driving through the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening, I rounded the corner of B-road to see the flag again, flying in someone’s garden. I had to pull over.

That’s not my flag and never will be. It’s just something someone I slightly knew died for.

Ebola; send in the army!

by Maria on October 2, 2014

When I was sixteen and seventeen I did my 5th Year of secondary school twice. Amidst grinds, tears and two to three hours of Honours Maths homework each night, I just could not make it past Christmas and still understand what was going on. (The obvious and practical response; take Ordinary Level Maths instead and accept that a career in Medicine was out, just didn’t seem to present itself.) For two years I hungrily repeated the exercises in the small part of the curriculum I understood, and threw myself with increasing desperation and diminishing returns at the rest. The last chapter I remember mastering was called something like ‘Sequences, Series and the Binomial Theorem’.

Happily, understanding – at least a little – the concept of geometric progressions has turned out to be one of the most useful and widely applicable bits of Maths I could have picked up. It crops up everywhere; understanding the spread and gravity of DDOS attacks, why mouse infestations need to be hit early, why skimming stones on water is so hard, and how a young woman settling for less money than a man at the beginning of her career may still be paying for it when she’s middle-aged.

The definition of a geometric series or progression is ‘whenever a term of a sequence is a constant multiple of the preceding term’. When that multiple is greater than one, the numbers will get very big, very fast. If, for example, the multiple is two, you’ve got ‘exponential growth’, a mathematical term of art that’s often used inaccurately elsewhere to describe rapid but not geometric increases. Real exponential growth tends to sound pretty grim when the term is correctly applied in epidemiology.

At dinner the other night, I learnt that the rate of increase of cases of Ebola in certain African countries has been modeled as a geometric progression for weeks, if not months.* Since at least August, the number of new Ebola infections has started to double every month. Common sense dictates that the more people infected, the more people who will be infected. Mathematics predicts chillingly just how bad it will be. The battle to stop the spread of this disease reaching the threshold where it is now running like wildfire has already been lost. [click to continue…]

You have got to see this

by Maria on September 23, 2014

Feminism, social activism, eye-catching stunt made eye-catching because it’s not a stunt.

About a dozen single mothers kicked out of their hostel in east London have occupied a ‘show-flat’ in the former Olympics estate that Newham Council is trying to flog while it has 24,000 households on its waiting list.
Instead of doing what they were told and being socially cleansed 200 miles away from family, friends, children’s schools and job prospects, these incredible women subverted one of London’s great middle class pleasures, the architectural Open House (I put my hand up, I go on it every year to gawk at other people’s houses), and occupied one of hundreds of empty, new-build flats. They set the place up as a community centre and are campaigning for the council to house the actual people it’s responsible for, showing they are real, articulate people with needs and rights, not a worthless blob of social problems.

Increasingly, I just can’t justify the amount of volunteer time I spend on Internet rights. Yes, we are handing over control of every aspect of our lives to insidiously corrupt and obviously ineffective states, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. But I live in a city of dirty billionaires and hungry children. This made me cry. Something has got to give.

@FocusE15 #occupiedE15

What’s the IGF?*

The world’s ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF), organised by the UN, is happening this week in Istanbul. The IGF is a free and open gathering of people from all over the world who have come to talk about how the internet is run. Last year’s IGF was in Bali. The year before was Azerbaijan. Turkey’s jailing of bloggers and recent attempt to ban Twitter are actually part of an established tradition of IGF host countries showing a certain carefree whimsy about human rights and the internet.

IGFs are a bit like weddings or London glass box house extensions. They’re all basically the same, but the tiny, barely discernible differences between them consume vast amounts of energy and generate heartache for everyone involved.

What’s the same about this IGF?

For participants, IGF Istanbul is much the same as all the IGFs that came before. It has the usual long, hot queues for a registration badge, extravagant security measures and slavish worship of alleged VIPs, the near-riots by participants not about the free flow of information but the free flow of coffee; the endless, paint by numbers speeches by a dozen or so communications ministers, a venue network that barely functions, and a gala reception with no alcohol.

These first world problems are actually a plus. They bring the 3,000 participants together, providing just enough shared moaning to break the ice between the different tribes of government, technical community, business and civil society.

What’s different?

Nothing overt, but the ground is shifting. This is the second IGF since the Snowden revelations shattered global confidence in the US’s leadership of the internet, and the first IGF since Brazil initiated a global dialogue about who should be in control. There is also the ongoing saga of how ICANN can prove itself worthy of being cut loose by the US government before the Obama administration finishes. But no world-changing announcements are expected at this IGF.

As ever, countries including Russia that want to control the internet would prefer to have the discussion about it in a forum that governments dominate: the International Telecommunications Union. But those countries still come to IGF and take part, albeit grumpily. They see efforts to stop them getting their hands on the internet’s controlling levers as stemming from the west’s desire to keep it for itself, with freedoms and human rights simply a smokescreen. All the work-shopping and hand-shaking at IGF won’t mask the ugliness of the internet’s basic geopolitics, especially in a city straddling Europe and Asia, and looking up the Bosphorus to Ukraine, Crimea and Russia’s (other) Black Sea resorts.
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UK CT readers, please read this Open Rights Group myth-buster on the surveillance legislation the three main parties have stitched up behind closed doors, and plan to vote through as an emergency tomorrow. Is your MP planning to vote for it? If they are, ask them if they will support a (to be tabled this afternoon) amendment that will bring the sunset clause down to 6 months – surely enough time to fix the ‘emergency’.

(More analysis from Paul Bernal here.)

(Email your MP here.)

What is DRIP?
The Data Retention Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) will require internet and phone companies to keep their customers’ communications data for up to a year. It is being rushed through parliament this week: MPs will vote on Tuesday and the Lords will vote on Thursday.

DRIP will replace the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. The legal basis of these regulations has been uncertain since the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) after the CJEU found the EU Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC to be invalid.
Legal wranglings aside, the ruling was very clear. Keeping everyone’s data in case they commit a crime seriously interferes with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life.

Additionally clauses 3-5 extend UK surveillance law – RIPA - to US and foreign companies. These measures are controversial, not related and there is no evidence that there is any reason for any rush.

Below are five arguments that the Government is using to justify its passing – and the real reason why it shouldn’t.

“This is an emergency”
The CJEU ruling was delivered on 8 April, 2014. The government has had three months to address the court’s findings. We believe that it is the threat of legal action by Open Rights Group and other organisations that has prompted this ‘emergency’ legislation – not the threat of terrorism or criminal activity. The government should not mislead us about the urgency of this legislation. Given its significance and the threat to our civil liberties, It should not be rushed through without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Background: After the CJEU ruling, Open Rights Group and other organisations contacted the Home Office to ask them if they would be asking internet service providers to stop retaining data. In May, the Home Office responded by saying that ISPs should continue to retain data. Last month, over 1,500 ORG supporters wrote to their ISPs asking them to stop keeping their data. They responded by saying that they were acting under the instructions of the Home Office.

“This is not an extension of powers, it’s restoring the status quo”
The Prime Minister said, “we are not introducing new powers or capabilities” but in fact DRIP does not just deal with Regulations that were made illegal by the CJEU ruling. Clauses 3 to 5 of the Bill make amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). DRIP extends the government’s surveillance powers in two ways:

It extends the territorial scope of RIPA - this means that the government can issue interception warrants for communciations data to companies outside of the UK.
It extends the definition of “telecommunications service” within RIPA. The effect of this is unclear, but it appears possible the new definition could include services such as Gmail.

“It’s the only way we can catch criminals”
We agree that the targeted retention of communications data can help the police to tackle serious crimes, such as terrorism and child abuse. However, the CJEU ruling outlined a low threshold for deciding to retain data. For example, if a serious crime if committed, data could be retained for a particular geographical region to support a criminal investigation. This means that the police could still retain data for specific investigations, rather than the blanket surveillance of all citizens.

The CJEU ruling was clear that blanket data retention interfered with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life. Other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Romania and Sweden, have rejected it. These countries continue to tackle serious crime without undermining their citizens’ civil liberties through blanket data retention.

“There is a sunset clause”
The Bill will expire on 31 December 2016. The government claims that this will ‘strengthen oversight and transparency’ but that is two and a half years away. Given that the Bill is to be rushed through parliament in a week, we believe that this date is too late to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. If legislation is to be rushed through without debate, an earlier expiry date of 31 December 2014 would allow for scrutiny in six months.

“The Bill includes concessions that take into account the CJEU ruling”
DRIP ignores the main part of the CJEU ruling – that blanket data retention severely interferes with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. The government has claimed that other aspects of the Bill will strengthen oversight and transparency. For example, they claim it will restrict the number of public bodies that can request communications data. Yet this concession does not appear in DRIP or the secondary legislation that will implement it.

Fuzzbot Wingfield

by Maria on April 16, 2014

E and I are acquiring a hairy baby this weekend. We can’t agree on a name. He is against human names, except for when he isn’t. I tend towards cute ones that will be embarrassing to call out in a south London park. We’re not allowed to get pretentious ones after writers and such. Suggestions?

Fuzzbot Wingfield
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To the point of collapse, and beyond

by Maria on April 8, 2014

I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.

ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:

“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about.
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ICANN Public Forum Bingo

by Maria on March 27, 2014

Here in Singapore at the ICANN Public Forum, we’re at the end of a brutally busy week talking about how to run the Internet naming and numbering systems. It’s an event comprised almost entirely of ritual, and to understand what’s going on you need to be able to translate some of the long-loved incantations. Here are a few:

When someone says: I’m going to simplify things.
They mean: Be confused. Be very, very confused.

When someone says: I’m going to back up here.
They mean: I’m going to make up some history, now.

When someone says:I’m going to name the elephant in the room.
They mean: My next observation will be startlingly banal.

When someone says: Speaking on my own behalf. As the VP of Blah for Blah Blah Corporation, ….
They mean: I don’t want you to think about who’s paying me to be here, but you better listen because we have a lot of money, customers and power / votes, ministries and battleships.

When someone says: We need to show leadership.
They mean: I should be in charge.

When someone says: There needs to be a bottom-up process.
They mean: Nobody asked me about this.

When someone says: I want to talk about process.
They mean: Hold up. I need to consult my boss.

When someone says: I realise I’m what’s standing between you and lunch / dinner / drinks
They mean: I know you won’t like what I’m going to say. Please don’t throw anything.

When someone says: We are fixing the plane while it’s in flight.
They mean: I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know I don’t like it.

When someone says: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
They mean: Ignore everyone else’s ideas and just use mine.

When someone says: Any other comments on this?
They mean: Will everyone please, for the love of all that is holy, STFU?

A journalist friend just emailed me some questions about Friday’s announcement by the US Dept. of Commerce NTIA that it will work towards internationalising the oversight of some of what ICANN does. The IANA function has long been a source of international grumbling, particularly amongst middle income countries that don’t feel they have any influence over a service the global Internet depends on. Some of this grumbling is purely opportunistic, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the bulk of it is of long standing. Ahead of an international meeting convened by Brazil next month to work on principles for Internet governance, the NTIA has made its play to get back in control of the process and the story. It’s asked ICANN to bring people together to come up with a transition plan to internationalise IANA.

If this hadn’t been a weekend when Russia annexed a province of a neighbouring country, the premise of the TV series ‘Lost’ became a serious contender for explaining current events in, or perhaps far away from, the Indian Ocean, and my husband’s best man made headlines saying he is ashamed of toeing the Ministry of Defence’s line that UK military kit in Afghanistan was a-ok, I expect the news that the United States is to renounce its exclusive hold on part of the Internet would have been front page news.

But it hasn’t been all that much in the news, and I am too jammed to blog anything comprehensive about the topic, so here are some hastily typed responses to the questions I was asked:
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I have endless important topics I need to, should and must blog about, not least the fact that I was in Crimea some time back and am currently glued to the radio, thinking very hard about it and not sure quite what to say. But anyway, I hope this post may end up being useful to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of what consultants term ‘desk research’. That is, I read a lot of stuff on the Internet, must of it about technical topics. Every now and then, some person or organisation I admire collects a lot of information into a report they are really proud of – and which looks incredibly useful to me – and I think ‘that is so good I’m going go ahead and read the whole thing.’ And that’s when the nuisance begins.

Look, I am old. Or what to my parents’ generation was called middle-aged, anyway. (When I was a teenager, women my current age wore scarves to protect their weekly set.) When I am very interested in something I’m reading on the Internet, I print it out and scribble, underline and write things on it. That’s what we old-timers do. Actually, I think that’s what most people still do when they want to ‘engage with a text’, and it’s why despite being a crazy-early adopter of Kindle type devices, I haven’t used one in over five years. (But I am grateful to e-readers for finally liberating me from the fear that scribbling on books and bending down their corners is desecration. It may also be my own mortality that causes me to mark things I am reading, as a none too subtle note to myself that it’s the only literary mark I am likely to make. Also, it helps me to remember later on that I’ve read something and even what I thought of it.)

Anyway, back to the PDFs of the useful and improving reports on matters technical or technocratic (it’s all the same in my world, that of Internet policy). The problem is, the people who produce these reports – and I am not naming names, because that would be ungrateful and the reports really are great, just unreadable – are so thrilled or relieved to finally get them out the door, they whip up something that looks great on the screen and just publish it to the Internet where saps like me download it and print it out at our own expense. Now I am happy and delighted to print this stuff at my own expense. It’s the ability of organisations to externalise this cost that makes it possible for many more people to get their stuff. But the wonderfully unbounded nature of online dissemination also stops those people from thinking about the reality and cost to their readers of actually printing and reading their work.

Probably back in the olden days when the world wide web was new, people would whip up something that looked great in print, put it online without doing anything else, be underwhelmed by the response and then sit through hours of expensive, off-site design seminars being told that is a totally wrong way to go about online publishing and the reason we can’t have nice things. Now the problem is kind of silly, really. People design documents that look great on a screen, publicise and publish it online, and send out to the home and office printers of the world an offering whose form is so irritating it detracts from the content.

So here is my free, in-your-own-time design seminar about what not to do when you hit ‘upload PDF’ to your website. [click to continue…]