Steal this Blog Post (While You Still Can)

A Long, Loving Look Back At 2010 – The Last Year We Really Owned Our Digital Lives

In a few years, I think 2010 will be remembered as the good old days, when the Web was free and simple. When Tim Berners Lee invented HTML, what percentage of his effort went into protecting rights holders? None. It was all about making a simple, robust code that let users do as much as simply as possible.

But, as the Internet has developed commercial value, a new set of corporate and government stakeholders has emerged to control who can do what online. Rights are being peeled away “for our own good” by quite a few state and corporate groups. At this rate, in just a few years our digital lives will seem very different, and geeks will look back to 2010 like hippies recall the bashes of the halcyon late Sixties.

1. You could use your cell phone almost anywhere.
In 2010 you could use your cell phone almost anywhere. Perhaps more than even the PC, the cell phone has changed how people live. It was the first realtime mobile network that introduced the 24×7, always-on digital world. In an effort to stop that – and protect us from texting drivers — the US Department of Transportation is looking for ways to jam cell phone signals in moving vehicles. I think this is both a pipe dream and a bad idea, but it’s a great example of how an important communications use case can be changed pretty undemocratically by regulation.

2.  You could post anything you wanted on your server.
We’ll remember 2011 as the year in which government agencies such as the FCC started to create rules for what you can do on your own servers, if others access them through the Internet. Just last year you could analyze log files, plant cookies on visitors, put up firewalls, and buy and sell stuff mostly tax-free. Now it’s very likely that analytics will be regulated, firewalls will have built-in government keys, and states are claiming that just talking to a customer in the same state creates a taxable nexus.

3.  You could also visit just about any site on your own.
Before 2010, Internet Service Providers mostly just provided data, not filtering or record-keeping of what you did online. There will be an increasing emphasis on identifying users, and forcing their ISPs to monitor activity as an extension of law enforcement. In the future, people may visit sites just because it looks good on their records, and they will certainly avoid sites that would look bad.

If this sounds far-fetched, don’t forget that the US government is trying to subpoena all Wikileaks-related materials from Twitter. So even if all you do is follow someone on a push medium, you are now suspect.  If you have a very long memory you might recall Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Don’t worry if your memory is very short, though. You may learn about them soon enough.

4.  National Security Agencies Weren’t Built into Social Networks
At every level of the Internet stack, national governments are determining what individuals can do on their own servers. In the case of social networks, this means that services may be required to be designed with national intelligence use cases in mind. If you’re giving users passwords for social networks, national intelligence needs a backdoor and has its own set of requirements.

5.  You Could Build a Supremely Ugly or Elaborate Multimedia Website (or One with Bikinis)
Now that courts have ruled that websites are “public accommodations,” those selling goods or services can be held to accessibility design standards. On multiple levels, what you do on your private server must meet government standards.

Just as we’re no longer sovereign over our own servers, we’re also now just renters of the rest of our digital lives. Now if you want to run an application on the iPad, it has to be approved by Apple (and they censor material seemingly with neither rhyme nor reason. Bikini sites, no. SI Bikini issue, yes.)

See how different this is from the neutral ubiquitous platform Tim Berners Lee & Co. invented? It will be interesting to see how people calculate the value of free speech and access to information vs. a really slick, reliable interface that’s managed by corporate whim.

And of course, it used to be any data that came to your machine could be saved, often by just right-clicking on images. As OS makers partner with rights holders, this feature is starting to fade away too. Right-click to save an image or text made sense in the day of the Web’s academic founding. But that can change.

So, go ahead, steal this article. Right-click away; the photo is free to use. Do it for old times, and because you still can.

Meanwhile, I’ll donate a buck in the name of all UsefulArts subscribers to the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), so we can keep some of the digital mojo we liked in 2010 around a bit longer.

On January 31 I’ll take a look at the subscriber count on Feedburner and contribute that amount to the EFF. It’s a hat-tip to everyone who has encouraged UsefulArts – and to the work being done to keep this medium open and free. The future is what we choose.

Peace out, dude.


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