A bi-weekly publication in support of informed public discourse. Our inspiration is I.F. Stone’s weekly, a digest published from1953 to 1971 that made sense of the news coming out of Washington. 

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Vol 4, No 4. June 4, 2020

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The Medium is a Message

 

As we see it:

It is strange that we know so little about something we are all so dependent upon.  This Bulletin is on the Internet.

The internet is a political and military phenomenon.

Its politics are the stuff of the daily press.  For example, our time is often called the "Internet age", as if everything had changed politically.  No one here is claiming that much of the old order (the system that produced vast gulfs of inequality etc.) has crumbled and faded away, Covid notwithstanding.  Political/economic systems do not fade away or crumble so much as they are blanketed by the new.  Crises notwithstanding.

As indeed they have been!  (The military connection is detailed below.)

More commonly, the Internet is told as a story of technological innovation. We will tell it instead as a series of choices and decisions (reflected in rules and standards) made by people, governments and mainly corporations during the times when the technology was given birth.

It will help to think of the Internet technology simply as the means of using equipment and natural resources in new and particular ways to achieve particular aims.  

Think of the Web as a means of using all this technological capacity to create a spiderweb of uses and users worldwide.  Think of Google, Facebook and the millions of apps as some among many entry points for governments and/or private corporations to use the technological capacity for their own purposes.
Such purposes are political and commercial, but sometimes they have a social purpose as well. 

That there are so many "entry points" means that just about any major institution, government or other, can siphon, monitor, block or redirect information to suit their ends.  And they all do.

China has often been accused of having a backdoor "entry point" to the internet.  It has been well documented that the NSA in the US does.  Chances are there are a multiplicity of "secret" entry points, as well as the well known ones.

Thinking of the technical capacity of the Internet way this way, we can get rid of all the technical terms .  We describe the technology in terms of what it does (and does not do) under which conditions, political and other.

"Political" for us translates into issues, such as privacy and privilege. Our questions are: when and how were seemingly technical decisions made that made incursions into privacy so easy and privileged some peoples and not others? 

With standards, we also have a personal story to tell.

Standards (Liora's story):

How often it is said that the Internet knows no rules.  Well, maybe not many rules (though two of great significance, see below) but always in the context of standards.

Why standards?  Standards are generally accepted ways of doing things.  They are neither the best nor the worst way, just the accepted way, begging the question accepted by whom?

The basic services provided by the Internet depend on cooperation amongst governments and private actors in all these elements of the Internet (for exceptions, see "entry points" note above).  Standards are their means of getting this cooperation, albeit often also in pursuit of competitive advantage.  Standards deal with technology, products and services.

Ages ago, my research was on standards for telecommunications. I spent weeks at a time in meetings of the various standards organizations, usually as part of the Canadian delegation.  I took notes, interviewed and collected documents over about four years, travelling to splendid cities (Rio, Tokyo, Geneva, Nice, Helsinki), only to sit in windowless conference rooms.  (My line at the time was that we could have been meeting in the Buffalo bus station).

In the case of the Internet, these standards determined if and how various telephone companies could be connected to each other such that information could move along a relatively seamless path from one place to another.  These standards determined the ways in whichever wireless system (including satellites) could be used and useful in various ways and locations. They are the "how" of communications technology.

GSM was the European standard for cell phones; the US companies used a different one.  The early meetings reflected this clash of standards. A single standard was avoided where these interests could not be bridged.

Standards say, by implication, who can export/import/use which technologies, products and services to whom. They look technical in other words, but they are always a foray into the realm of the political.

5G is at its heart a standards issue.  That is, 5G represents a new way of using a natural resource (the spectrum), and a new constellation of equipment to get information from every location to every other location,  It is controversial because the Chinese 5G standards are different from the US companies ways of achieving 5G (the standards being proposed by US companies. The issue is whose standards will be used in which locations, i.e. whose 5G standard will France, Germany, India adopt.

How standards are established:

international organizations:

The ITU is, among other things, a standards development organization.  It is intergovernmental, part of the UN network since 1949.  It is a major player setting standards to determine the shape and capacities of the Internet.

In the ITU (and in fact in all the formal standards organizations) it can take years (often 8 years) to develop a single standard.  There are thousands of them for aspects of the Internet. Only some are ITU standards.

In the ITU, only government-appointed delegates get to speak.  But within the delegation (and meeting constantly in corridors etc.) are others: the occasional academic expert, representatives of the major trade organizations plus representatives of the companies considered to be major "users".

By the time "decisions" reached by the ITU general assembly (the final stage of the process), the technical committees (which have the same kinds of membership) have scoped out the situation to the point where mainly all that is left to do is kick a decision through the net, or not.

It matters who is on the ITU room.  The UN standards bodies invite all countries, but formal rules are misleading.  The technologically sophisticated (read, the highly industrialized) countries bring a phalanx of experts and user (company) representatives.  A poor country might send one or none.

The recent squabble about Taiwan's membership on the ITU standards body is about this: China said no for its own geo-political reasons; the US said yes.  In the end, Taiwan decided not to press for membership.

It also matters whose room it is.  The ITU technical committees are hosted by a country with the technical expertise and resources to do so.  This eliminates most countries as hosts. It gives those located close by (whose company pays the costs of the delegates) an added advantage.

Private sector standards organizations:

It should matter whether an international standards organization is public (inter-government) or private. In practice, not so much. 

In private-sector standards organizations, the heads of delegations are not government appointed, but government officials are part of the delegations.  Sitting in the room, often you cannot tell the difference.

How formal standards "work":

The standards set by the ITU and/or private sector bodies are just guidelines .  Moreover, they have to be accepted later (as guidelines or as regulations) by the countries and/or companies involved. 

Sometimes a country's delegates or corporate delegate will vote to accept a standard that will never be ratified or used later. Until and unless standards actually become regulations, they just are points of reference signaling (for markets also) where the technology /product/service is going. 

"Consensus " and "harmonization" are the key words in the standards world.  

Harmonization does not mean that there should be one way of doing things everywhere. Harmonization means that different equipment, systems and services will be able work together without extra bumps.  Standards are not standard, in other words, but harmonized ways of doing things, often quite differently.  Both telephone and wireless companies use a variety of different ways of getting information from place to place.

Consensus does not mean agreement amongst participants in a standards organization.  It means that no delegate has put a formal objection on the table.  Silence is consent to the "consensus".  There are many reasons why a country/company might choose to remain silent as opposed to actively oppose a standard, most of which have little to do with the "decision" at hand. 

Little about technology, products or services is actually subject to formal standards.  It takes a long time to get to even one of these standards. You might well wonder why so much money is invested to transport so many middle level managers, engineers and government people all around the world for weeks at a time.  

Think of these formal standards meetings instead as conversation pits.  The delegates conversing are erstwhile competitors, all with a vested interest in setting "rules of the game" or ensuring that there are no blockages to their competitive strategies.  Government and corporate officials sit side by side for days on end (plus cocktail parties) openly (and persuasively) discussing what government policy should be.

At the time I attended standards meetings, most telephone companies were state-owned, but virtually all of the speeches made at meetings seemed to be premised on there being private ownership.  What was assumed but not true gradually became what seemed to be normal.

Cooperative agreements amongst competitive companies is anti-trust: standard setting is not considered anti-trust.  

Google and Facebook may turn out to be subject to anti-trust but not the agreements that were made about the technologies they run on

 Informal standards:

International institutions - public and private - are under attack these days: The formal standards organizations just described have always been just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, today they are a small chunk.   

A company might choose to go it alone, developing and then promoting its own standards to become the standards, all in order to secure competitive advantage. The competition amongst various corporations to have their own standards prevail is the stuff of market relations.

The classic example of a fight about standards is that between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS.  You know how this story ends, but at the time, Betamax was thought to deliver better quality.  (So much for building better "mousetraps")

To a large extent, corporations are where many Internet standards come from today, though often with a great deal of government subsidy for their development.  

Corporation-set standards are President Trump's wet dream.

Much subsidization and many standards come from the military. In fact, the military is the birth-mother of the Internet and its original standards have become everyone's basic standards thereafter.

DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm is the birth-father of the internet, and CERN, a consortium of EU countries (a significant portion of its work is defence-related) is the birth-home of the Web.

Industry trade associations always play a major role (including with the military) Most do not themselves develop standards because of the delicate balance they must maintain among their corporate members and because they want to avoid anti-trust laws.  

Professional associations, say of engineers, are another matter.  They do not attract anti-trust. The engineering trade association is a major source of Internet related standards.

The IEEE has played a major role for wireless standards and is a significant player in standards for the Internet of Things (e.g. your refrigerator can communicate with your front door camera).

The insurance industry always has a major say, though without formal recognition. Adherence to standards signals "due diligence" almost no matter who develops them.  Elements of the Internet that are un-insurable are not formally standardized.

Herein lies one reason why so much content is subject to neither standards nor rules: If existing laws are inadequate or fail and if there are no standards, forget about insurance claims and lawsuits. Now that's a kind of "insurance" also!!

We once called standards setting "the housework of capitalism" because it is mainly invisible work which is absolutely crucial, even though the results often have no formal status. The Internet required considerable housework to get going, and it does even still.

 Rules:

It would be a free-for-all if the Internet was a wide-open space, as it is often portrayed to be.  It is not, and therein lies the main rules governing the Internet.  

And the ITU again.  But to understand the ITU's role as the rule-maker, one needs to appreciate a simple fact:  Both wires (cable, fibre or whatever) and space (the earth's atmosphere and beyond) have a limited capacity to transmit the kind of waves (we will call them signals, although technically waves and signals aren't the same thing) capable of conveying information, i.e. anything that one could call information. 

Among other things, the ITU assigns access to this capacity for whichever uses in whichever region.  It made the basic decisions in 1947, long before the Internet was even a pipedream. It made these decisions at a time when the US held technological suprema. The allocation of capacity still reflects this. 

Then and now, the world is divided into three regions. What happens in each region can be of little concern to the others, although the whole is harmonized. Each country then sets its own rules for how its portion of capacity will be allocated for which uses and under what conditions.  Therein lies China's capacity to develop its own "internet" and uses.

A very large chunk (probably the majority) of the capacity is under control of the military, and it jealously guards its portion especially in light of the demand from new technology (e.g. 5G) providers). Each country has its portion of capacity; each country allocates to its military a chunk of it.

For the most part, the ITU allocation decisions stand today, geo-political shifts and technological progress notwithstanding. 

 Technological innovation:

What about all this capacity?  Can it be increased?  Yes and no.

One might think that with all the new and more efficient uses of the Internet that the rules about who can use what for what purposes would be changing significantly. Capacity to carry signals can become ever more efficient only by:

  • turning all information into ones and zeros (digitalizing it),
  • spacing the signals closer or spreading usage over less used periods of time  
  • squeezing the signals closer together
  • sharing capacity among various users  
  • utilizing blank spaces between bits of information,
  • finding more usable room to manoeuvre by using a different kind of wave/signal, 
  • sending bits of information on different routes (wayze like) to the same destination, thereby using all the possible means of getting from A to B,
  • sending lower quality communications.

Doing all this is a mainstay of technological innovation, but the decisions are intensely political as well. Each country seeks to maximize (and monetize) the capacity it has been assigned to the greatest extent its resources allow. In short, the use of the capacity can and has been expanded; the capacity has not.

What about satellites - do they extend capacity? Yes and no.

Satellites make it possible to reach areas otherwise poorly served by wires, etc.

But think of a satellite as if it were a big mirror and power booster in the sky, bouncing signals to and from locations on earth.  They expand the reach of the Internet (not infinitely, but within a specific range) for all its many uses.

Mini-satellites (orbiting closer to earth) have a smaller bounce range, i.e. they can send signals back over a smaller area, but often with better results than can the major satellites (therein lies one of the advantages of 5G).

Remember, the whole has been "harmonized" such that information can flow from one region or country to another, using one type of transmission to another without there being bumps in the road. 

This is not to say (as we have said before) that there aren't abundant entry points or that the "Internet" is the same everywhere. 

 Is the Internet "Public":

Should capacity be a public resource, given that it is a natural resource, like air or fish?   Good question. 

In Canadian law, capacity is still called a "public resource" for the purposes of regular broadcasting. Not so in the USA.

In Canada as still is the case in many countries, broadcasters get a licence to use a portion of the capacity but they do not own what they use (thereby allowing the regulator to set conditions of use).

But by now, the commons have been "enclosed", privatized in many countries in the world (it's a national decision).  Portions of capacity have been sold (auctioned) off by governments to corporations (for vast sums of money). This is even true in Canada for many of uses.

All of which is to say that, while the Internet is often considered to be a public highway, a public resource, a public domain, a public space, the Internet is no differently public than, say, the air rights above a building (which are private and subject to being sold), or fish (fishing quotas are bought).

The Internet is rife with private (and military) ownership in much of the world, even though there are still some publicly owned telephone systems, transmission faciities and free Internet access points. The wires, the cables, the fibre and the satellites are mainly also privately owned.

It is in the common interest of all the private owners (Verizon for example) to speak of the Internet as a common resource.  They treat it accordingly both legally and practically.  

After all, the Internet only works when there are no speed bumps. Because rules and regulations also serve as "speed bumps", conceiving of the Internet as a public space helps avoid them.  Even the EU weighed in against regulation of the Internet.

 Storage and Energy:

Information disappears fast (or never in the case of social media).  Today's important emails are buried deep in the pile by next week.  We all need storage.  The problem with storage is how much space/energy it requires to establish and maintain it.  The internet is a huge energy gobbler, not just from geo-thermal sources (in Iceland) but also from fossil fuels.

In sum: Call drops and slow speeds:

There is lots of talk now about the capacity of the Internet to handle all the tasks/information exchange being asked of it during this pandemic (and likely afterwards).

Had the pandemic occurred five years ago, it might well have been a very different story. For the most part now, it all works most of the time for almost all uses in most parts of the world.

To repeat: The Internet works now because lots has been done to upgrade facilities and expand the uses of the capacity in the past five years.  It works because information is broken down into little bits such that they can be packed together tightly, or spaces filled between the bits, or because innovations are expanding the usable parts of the capacity we have. It works because signals can be put into "packets" and the packets sent through whatever space is available anywhere in the system, only to be reconstructed after all the packets get to their final destination.  If there is too much flowing through at any one time, the process slows down (calls drop out, connections are poor or lost).

But recall that the Internet depends on a variety of different kinds of wire, cable etc. and satellites: on harmonized interconnection, in other words. Not all these wires et. have the same capacity, and satellites do not reach everywhere with the same strength.  

Upgrades result in 30-40% more capacity each year. They occur mainly in the richer, more industrialized and more urban locations in the world. In locations not well served by upgrades or filled in by satellites, much less is available.  

Keep in mind that capacity is now mainly in private hands (at least in the US) and thus not likely to be extended where it is unprofitable to do so. Home-bound internet access costs money and requires the purchase of a computer.

The "Internet age" that is so glibly talked about might have ever more activities occurring on-line (bye-bye retail stores).  If so, even the expansive technology that we North Americans and Europeans have now might be pushed harder. It might be subject to more political headwinds, with ever more "entry points" and ever more differences between those who have it all and those who do not.

Plainspeak.ca is a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating informed debate. In existence for more than 20 years, Plainspeak has been supported through contract work with social justice and aboriginal groups and by the authors of this and other Muckraker Bulletins, Rick and Liora Salter.

Muckraker Bulletin is a Plainspeak publication. It is available free of charge (email: liorasalter@icloud.com).  The Bulletin has a subscription list of about 250. Please feel free to copy and/or distribute.  Plainspeak has published Muckraker Bulletin for four years. Bulletins have dealt with money laundering, cryptocurrencies, the Arctic/Antarctic, and the unknown Middle East among other topics (see Website). 

Occasionally we will use a word that has one meaning in everyday talk, and another, very specific one as a technical term.  Our use is always the everyday one. Our goal is not simplification.  On the contrary, it is to call attention to connections between the technical and political.

  In the US, a standard is the same thing as a regulation, law-like and thus capable of being enforced (often not). Here we are taking about voluntary standards, the more common usage of the term.

 


 


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