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Free Wireless Broadband for Everyone…

By on Mar 31, 2005 in activism, online community | 12 comments

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out a way to provide wireless broadband Internet access to everyone living within the centre of St. Albans *. This is, by the way, likely to be the geekiest blog entry I’m ever likely to make – and there is some moderately interesting historical stuff here about new media activism in the late 90’s to keep the rest of you marginally happy. I’d like to start out small, of course, first giving access to my immediate neighbours then to people waiting for a train at St. Albans Thameslink, approximately 250 meters from my home. There are also 5 pubs within easy reach, The Horn, The Glasshouse, and 3 others I’ve only ever visited once and don’t intend to visit again. I reckon that, within this area, based on two people living in each household, there’s easily 1000 people plus another 150 or so living in a council owned tower block about 150m from my house. I’ve got wireless broadband at home and, contrary to my provider’s terms of service which state that I am allowed to access the internet wireless from my home and garden and that people using equipment not owned by me aren’t allowed to use my internet access at all. Sure, I understand that this makes business sense – afterall, what broadband provider would be pleased at the idea that over 1000 people could potentially share a broadband line costing only £17.50 a month – but it’s not very community oriented of them. Forgetting for a moment, as one does, the terms and conditions of my broadband access and the legalities of sharing it, I recently hinted to my neighbour that, should he wish to do so, my wireless broadband point was unsecured and free for the taking. If I ever get around to meeting the other neighbours I’ll probably tell them too. A few years ago, when new media was new and the Internet was way cooler than it is today, I used to occasionally have the opportunity to hang around at Backspace, a sort of community media lab in Clink Street, London. One of the projects that was initiated by James Stevens, Julian (who has written an excellent document about the project) and others at Backspace (I was just one of many random hangers-on who turned up with beer and… well just leave it at that) was Consume.Net Consume.Net, according to Armin Medosch, co-founder of CyberSalon with Richard Barbrook and Mute Magazine, was one of the World’s first FreeNetwork projects. To completely and utterly reduce this project to an easily digestible form, the original project that was Consume.Net took a high bandwidth internet connection, sent the signal wirelessly, and enabled around 100 local residents to share the connection. There were other wireless FreeNetwork projects in London too, for example http://www.free2air.org/, although that particular site now appears to be dormant and I haven’t yet had the time to research the current status of FreeNetworking in London. Consume.net, however, is still around and, on their site, you’ll find a handy FreeNetwork nodemap showing wireless access points throughout the London area. In 1998, around the same time as Backspace was at the centre of the London new media activist World (Issue 5 of Cybersociology was dedicated to New Media Activism), I was a co-organiser of a symposium called “Exploding Media 1998” along with Micz Flor and Simon Robertshaw (both then at the University of Salford) and Josephine Berry (Mute). This was the year that ISEA, which I also gave a presentation at but I have no idea what about, was hosted in Manchester and Liverpool. Micz was also the organiser of Revolting, a week of workshops for new media activists hosted in a building with the most fitting name for such events, “The Deaf, Blind and Dumb Institute”. One of the best experiences I had between our symposium, ISEA, and Revolting was a workshop organised by Geo from Backspace. [Geo, I’m sorry, I have forgotten your surname and lost touch with you over the years.] We connected a small handmade broadcast unit to a Macintosh and someone, probably Geo and Micz, had climbed to the top of the building in the night with an antenna. As soon as we hooked up a microphone we entered the world of pirate radio broadcasting – about 500 meters or less, I should add, from BBC Manchester on Oxford Road. We started recording various workshops and meetings at Revolting, broadcasting them via fm to the local community who no doubt were completely unaware of our efforts. We also streamed our content online using a realmedia server we’d “acquired access to” in Canada. At some point during the day, I pointed out that the IRC programme IRCLE can turn text to speech which would allow us, as we streamed and broadcast our audio content, to give participants logging into the chat room the ability to “speak” to listeners (we taped a microphone to a speaker on the mac and ran the input from that mic to the machine doing the streaming and broadcasting). Someone else came up with the idea of also attaching a telephone to this feedback loop. A few minutes later, we were across the road in the Sandbar, a student hangout, listening to ourselves on the bar’s fm radio, asking chat users in Germany how much a pint was, then putting students on...

Always connected, but how steep is the downside?

By on Mar 30, 2005 in mobile, online community | 1 comment

Like many readers of this blog, I’m always online. Always connected. Well, most of the time anyway. As I write this, I’ve got my iPod on, playing music that I discovered browsing the playlists of other people using the iTunes “legal music download” service. The train I’m on doesn’t have wireless internet access. It probably should. I’m sure that at least a handful of the many other commuters I can see using their laptops would pay a small supplement on top of their annual rail pass to be able to access the internet from the train. It wouldn’t be difficult to do either. About three years ago, whilst I was working at Granada Media, we came up with the idea of launching a broadband wireless services that would give users access to a walled garden of Granada Television content such as regional news, sport highlights, and the popular evening soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale. The route we had in mind was Virgin’s West Coast Mainline services between Manchester and London and, perhaps, Liverpool to London. The journeys are approximately three hours station-to-station and, for those of us who are used to being connected to the internet much of the time it would have been worth paying an extra few pounds to have access to our email, web content, etc on the train. So instead of spending hours chit-chatting to Tom the motorway maintenance guy from Ormskirk, we could bury our head in our laptops. We never pitched our idea to Virgin or any other train service. The closest we got to even trialling the idea was sort-of-pitching (ie. tossing into a conversation about something else) a location based wireless service was when we told the design company behind the Arsenal Football Club website that we’d be interested in doing some concept work on a wireless match programme guide that users could access via PDA’s that they’d hire (or bring themselves) at the souvenir stand at Highbury. I was told, at the time, that a laptop with a good wireless router, could probably cover 25% of the stadium. Fans could, through the multi-media programme guide, watch goals over and over from the stands – an idea that would have worked great that particular year as Arsenal were in top form. They could also order a slice of pizza, the team strip to take home to their kids, or whatever right from their handheld device. It’s an interesting idea and no doubt one that someone somewhere will make a lot of money out of, particularly media companies and gambling sites. In a previous entry to this blog I wrote about “dating through the network”. One thing I didn’t mention is that, despite the fact that millions of people are using online dating services, most of us still meet our romantic and sexual partners in an offline environment. For many that’s at work, through friends, or at an academic institutions. For others it’s quite ramdomly – I, for example, met my girlfriend on a plane between London and Warsaw where I was going for a speaking engagement. We got to know each other better via text message and phone calls before meeting up again for a coffee but the fact remains that, had my iPod battery not failed me and had I had the laptop I’m writing this on right now with me, much less the ability to connect to the internet from the plane as some carriers are now offering their passengers, I never would have met the girl of my dreams on that plane that day. My point in all this is simple. We live in a World where it is increasingly easy to go online from just about anywhere – accessing services via SMS, WAP, x-box, refridgerator, iDTV, handheld PDA, or laptop. Don’t get me wrong, there are HUGE benefits to this, but I also find myself wondering how steep the downside is. I’m sure that, in future blog entries, I’ll write about how great wireless technology is, how the iPod has added a soundtrack to my life, how convenient it is to be able to send a photo to my blog or to a friend via email – but hopefully I’ll always remember to link back here, to the question I’ve asked, and not answered, about the downside of being so densely connected to the internet. "This train is now arriving at St. Albans...

Finding trustworthy information in the blogosphere?

By on Mar 30, 2005 in online community | 1 comment

My recent mistake in a blog entry, which was fairly minor but clearly my own fault, got me thinking about the scholarship of blogs. Blogs, and to a lesser extent personal broadcasting (using streaming video and/or podcasting), are clearly becoming an important source of information and news for many internet users and the mainstream (ie. Traditional print and broadcast media) is picking up on that. I’ve read a number of places that last year, 2004, was the "year of the blog" – that is, the year when blogging became something that many people, perhaps even the majority of people in Western countries at least, had heard of. Eszter Hargittai, an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, has created a nice graph analysing the number of references to ""weblog" and "blog" in mainstream print media since 1997. Jason Gallo, also at Northwestern, writes on Blogosphere, a site containing various academic studies of blogging, that "they are helping to usher in a new form of hybrid journalism that merges traditional newsroom practices with the decentralized intelligence of individuals and groups spread across the Internet." But how do blog readers know what blogs they can trust? For me personally it’s a matter of reading a little bit about the author as well as looking to see what, if any, sites are linking that the blog I happen to be reading. Is the author a respected person in the field they are writing about? Have they published articles or research somewhere there is a peer review system or editor checking their contributions? Are important sites linking to them? When writing the above paragraph, there was a part of me that kept saying "but that goes completely against the whole idea of self publishing on the internet". Back in the mid-90’s, when I first became interested in social uses of internet technology, a lot of people, myself included, we’re extremely interested in the idea that self publishing online would reverse the trend of a few large media owners to control the news and viewpoints we read, hear, and see. Online publishing was a way to bi-pass the normal gatekeepers of ideas and, if an idea was good enough, to gain an audience for one’s views. But has internet self publishing really done that anyway? Most internet users use search sites like Google or Yahoo to find content. If you’ve ever tried to get one of these sites to list your site you’ll know that, following submission, it can often take weeks or months for your site be crawled and added to their database. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. So you publish something online and no one notices. Is that really any different from having not published your work at all? Well, it IS different, but it’s still not exactly suberting the usual media <–> media consumer relationship. So what’s the answer? How can blog readers filter out the good information from the bad, the signal from the noise, whilst at the same time avoiding giving the traditional gatekeepers of information (including web search sites, academic institutions, the traditional media, etc) veto power over what information we see and how we use it? One way forward might be services like del.icio.us, Furl and StumbleUpon which allow multiple users to create and share sets of bookmarks. Adam Bosworth has posted some interesting thoughts on group tagging. Group tagging makes a lot of sense to me – if you trust the people you use such a service with it can act as a group filter for content that might be of interest to you. I’ve yet to really explore these services myself but would love to hear what current users think. Is this part of the answer to finding useful information, from trustworthy sources, online? [Want to know more? Reuters is hosting an event about Blogging and the Media in New York City, Tuesday 05 April 2005. For details, see the Blog...

Dating Through the Network

By on Mar 29, 2005 in mobile, online community, online dating | 6 comments

A few years ago anyone who told their friends they were using an online dating service, or that they had met someone through a social networking site such as friendster, may very well have faced laughter, warnings about personal safety, questions about how one could be sure that the person they met online wasn’t a 14 year old geek, whether your date lived up to expectations, etc. Nowadays everyone seems to be openly discussing online dating and I’m actually starting to be surprised when I encounter couples who didn’t meet online. In fact, some, including BBC News Online, reckon there is a "surprisingly high" success rate for couples that met online but maybe that success doesn’t always come easy – Amazon.co.uk currently lists 37 how to books about online dating. Capitalising upon the online dating industry are Online Personals Watch , a sort of industry insider report site, and iDate 2005, a conference series making stops in Hong Kong, San Francisco, Prague, and Miami. I once worked at a wireless start-up company where one of the services I was involved with was anonymous SMS chat. The most popular of our various rooms was, by far, the "on the pull" room. Just about anyone with a GSM phone has, at one time or another, flirted with someone via text message. Recent research by Ruth Byrne and Bruce Findlay in Australia looks at whether gender affects users preference to initiate romantic contact via SMS in comparison to by voice call. Then there was "toothing", one of those social activities that thousands of journalists write about but no one seems to actually have seen for themselves. In fact, Steve Curran, who dubbed the term, may very well have made it all up and duped the media at the same time. Dating via 3G mobile services, which offer streamed video calls (as well as other downloadable media rich services), also seems likely to be a non-starter. The other day I came across a blog entry by Alexander Paine in which he describes "flirting via iTunes". Then there’s the other side of the coin – paedophiles are increasingly utilising digital networks to find children to abuse, as was seen in a recent UK court case. In addition to the usual journalist and student interest, I probably get one or two emails a month from people who have discovered that their partner is having cybersex with someone else. Usually they ask if they should consider it cheating although sometimes it’s the cheating party who comes asking if it’s "normal". [Note: I’m not a counselling service but there are plenty of articles about cybersex infedelity that, more often then not, maralise about this type of thing.] Of course, if you do find out that your partner is cheating on you online, via xbox live, iTunes or whatever, you might want to move to Malaysia where it’s possible to divorce someone (well, for a man to dump his wife anyway) via text...

Message Board Law: 1 – Libel

By on Mar 29, 2005 in Data Protection Act, internet libel, law, online community | 3 comments

Defamation law, which essentially protects people and companies from damage to their reputation caused by untrue statements (libel = publication/broadcast; slander = spoken) in the UK is often said to be more strict than in other countries. For more information on UK defamation law as it applies to the media see http://www.media-solicitors.co.uk/ and, if you are interested in UK law and blogging, see http://www.bigblogcompany.net/index.php/weblog/category/C20/ The main case sited by online community professionals in the UK is Godfrey v Demon Internet. The following two Guardian articles, both published on 18 December 2002, explain the case. Report backs ISP libel law claims by Owen Gibson: http://media.guardian.co.uk/medialaw/story/0,11614,862227,00.html Internet libel laws ‘stifling freedom of expression’  by Clare Dyer: http://media.guardian.co.uk/medialaw/story/0,11614,862088,00.html A more recent case in Scotland was settled out of court so doesn’t set a legal precedent but is still informative: Payout for newspaper online talkboard libel, by Claire Cozen, 9/9/04, The Guardian (see http://media.guardian.co.uk/medialaw/story/0,11614,1301056,00.html It’s not internet related, but the Times has been sued for libel by the Conservatives campaign director. In what I originally (and mistakenly – thanks George for the correction and a few more links) blogged as an American case but which was, in fact, a UK case, the Motley Fool website was compelled by court order to reveal the registration details of a user who posted libellous comments on a UK message board at the site. According to Lucy Sherriff, in an article for The Register, Benjamin was unmasked by a court order compelling Motley Fool to reveal the details it held on the poster known as "analyser71". The IP address associated with his postings was then traced back to a computer at his then employers, Kyte Fund Management. The Motley Fool case, thought to be the first where a user posting anonymously has been successfully sued for damages in the UK, has also been covered by The Guardian and The Sunday Times. Motley Fool has published it’s own press release about the case. Apple, similarly, has compelled the US courts to force blog service providers to reveal the registration details of users and has used this information to force bloggers to reveal the sources of "insider" information at Apple. In the UK we have the protection of the Data Protection Act which means, without a court order, ISP’s and internet publishers CAN’T reveal personal registration information without a court order having been issued forcing them to do so. But it’s likely (as was seen in the Motley Fool case) that the courts would supply such an order if a claimant in a civil libel case requested one. What seems unclear, based on the Demon Internet case, is whether ISP’s and internet publishers who were notified of libellous message board posts, and who took expedient action to remove those posts (Demon didn’t, and was criticised in the judgement for this), could still be found guilty under UK libel law. In Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd (1999) . In the his judgement, Lord Nichols of Birkenhead outlines the current position of UK defamation law then proceeds to list ten considerations which might help publishers to form a defense. This has become known as the "Reynolds Defense". Lord Nichols writes: Depending on the circumstances, the matters to be taken into account include the following. The comments are illustrative only. 1. The seriousness of the allegation. The more serious the charge, the more the public is misinformed and the individual harmed, if the allegation is not true. 2. The nature of the information, and the extent to which the subject-matter is a matter of public concern. 3. The source of the information. Some informants have no direct knowledge of the events. Some have their own axes to grind, or are being paid for their stories. 4. The steps taken to verify the information. 5. The status of the information. The allegation may have already been the subject of an investigation which commands respect. 6. The urgency of the matter. News is often a perishable commodity. 7. Whether comment was sought from the plaintiff. He may have information others do not possess or have not disclosed. An approach to the plaintiff will not always be necessary. 8. Whether the article contained the gist of the plaintiff’s side of the story. 9. The tone of the article. A newspaper can raise queries or call for an investigation. It need not adopt allegations as statements of fact. 10. The circumstances of the publication, including the timing. (PS. I’m not a lawyer. The information above is published to help readers understand the current issues within UK libel law, not to provide legal advice or advice which can be acted upon. Please consult a legal professional.)  31 March 2005: Miranda Mowbray has written an excellent paper discussing the "Philosphically Based Limitations to Freedom of Speech in Virtual Communities" that some readers might find to be useful background for this blog...