Author Archive

Millimeter Waves Or: Network Tax in Space

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

Granted, nobody knows what the network tax will be or indeed if it will ever happen. What we have is speculation and telco Xmas wishes. The idea that the sender should pay for the traffic in the network (in addition to the fees paid already by the subscribers).

In fact, the sender already pays, and also invests in the infrastructure. Take a look at your own internet subscription and you will find that the bandwidth has one figure for download and one for upload (sometimes they match, but no rule) for example 1000/100 Mbps – that means the capacity for transfer from the internet is 1000 megabits per second, but the transfer speed from your end-point to the internet is only 10th of that – 100 megabits per second. Guess what: you can increase your upload capacity by buying a better plan. The sender pays. The same business logic applies to anyone with a server. Of course, the uploader will often use a different service provider than the downloader, so the telecoms charge each other for transit traffic. (And throttle it to maximize their profit). With upload and download fees, both senders and consumers pay: telcos are already charging both ends of the pipe. The concept of network tax does not really add a new revenue stream but rather a regulation increasing an existing one. And yes, the services and platforms already invest in infrastructure, namely in the “middle-mile”: such as sub-oceanic cables and content-delivery networks. Not to mention how telcos often sell package deals with content services, effectively integrating them in their consumer offer and relying on that value to attract customers. (Remember zero-rating for Facebook? Telcos chose to sugarcoat their subscriptions by excluding popular services from the monthly data allowance.)

It’s not like the telecoms have a natural monopoly on data traffic (though sometimes you can get the impression that they would love to). The Starlink satellite internet is now combat-proven in Ukraine and has 2000+ satellites providing decent bandwidth and okay latency also in parts of Europe where mobile and fiber struggle. (Musk got it right this time. Who thinks Starlink will have zero-rating for Twitter?) Other satellite internet initiatives exist – you may have used satellite internet on an airplane, dear reader. Should content services pay… network tax in space? Not to mention Google’s balloon internet. Not sure humanity would benefit long-term from GAAFA also owning the last mile-infrastructure, but it makes sense for them to find ways to by-pass the telcos. Or perhaps they should pay the network tax to…  themselves?

Not even mobile networks are the exclusive domain of telecoms, for example the Swedish communication system for police, fire department, ambulance services and other such functions is called Rakel and it runs nation-wide on its own base-stations (in one of the biggest member states by land area). Not that Rakel will stream movies anytime soon, but it proves that there is no need for a telco in order to build and run a mobile network.

WRAN is a technology that uses wi-fi to cover larger areas and provide data traffic. The evolution of mobile network technologies follows the opposite trajectory of shorter wavelengths/higher frequencies and a denser network of base-stations. 3G was 400 MHz to 3 Ghz, 4G is up to 3,8 GHz, 5G is 2-6 GHz. 6G is envisioned to have even shorter wavelengths – so-called “millimeter waves” and frequencies 30-300 GHz (or even higher according to some sources) – and thus even smaller antennae. (One telecom engineer this writer spoke with explained that 6G base stations might be in the form of paint on a wall!). It is already the case that wi-fi technology (6-300GHz) overlaps mobile networks and we can only expect that trend to continue. The lines are blurring.

When everyone is a telco, who should receive the network tax payment? No wonder the telecoms regulators are skeptical.

Would Network Tax Bring Better Broadband?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2022

It ain’t easy being telco. €100 Billion Euro public support and dividend pay-outs five times above average…  are we sure this is where the state needs to step in and dictate a new revenue-stream? Enter The Network Tax a k a The Sender Pays.

Once celebrated concepts of network neutrality and open internet are old hat when EU telcos look for new revenue. Many interesting failures to broaden income have led to this point. Remember the experiments in central-Asian “emerging markets”, where telcos ended up supporting dictators chasing down democracy activists? Or the fonky-labelled subscriptions for young demographics? Integrating services and content with connectivity, anyone? In the end, it turns out that telcos rely on two main sources of revenue: subscriptions and public money.

ECIPE – a Brussels think-tank – looks into this in a recent report and the findings should be a cause for concern for any fan of European telecoms. At the moment, the European incumbents receive Billions of Euros in public support, but that goes to investment in non-EU markets and pay-outs to share-holders rather than domestic infrastructure. The proposed network tax-regime would bring market concentration, discourage infrastructure investment and potentially bring market disruption where platforms by-pass the telecoms, accessing users directly. Not to mention pricier access for European consumers (need I add it would be poor timing considering the macro-economy and pressure on households?).

Does this blog post put Netopia in the same camp with Big Tech? Maybe, but I’d rather be asking question than making suggestions. In any case, rest assured Netopia will continue to criticize Silicon Valley whenever called-for. Stay tuned.

Twitter Exodus and the EEE Playbook

Monday, November 21st, 2022

Is Mastodon where Twitter ex-pats seek refuge after the Musk take-over? The Tesla-gazillionaire’s acquisition has been a drama beyond the imagination of any script-writer. First Musk made an unsolicited bid to take Twitter private, then he pulled out, but was forced to see it through and made a weird pun carrying a sink into the main office. Next thing, he fired lots of employees, rolled back years of work on suicide prevention, anti-harassment and human rights, switched to a Monty Python-inspired business model and triggered a flood of memes. One user with verified status changed their ID to ex-president Donald Trump and immediately pronounced same man dead. It was a mess and it is only getting messier each time Musk tries to micro-manage it.

Is there a need for an online “town square”? If Twitter used to be the answer, it would appear that is no longer the case. So where do people run to? Mastodon seems to be the flavour of the month. In contrast, it is a not-for-profit, grassroots-driven service where each server is connected to the others in what is called the Fediverse. Anyone can start a Mastodon-server and set their own rules for publication, but other servers may choose not to link to troll servers. Perhaps this is a recipe for a better conversation online – fewer trolls, less algorithm-fuelled toxicity, zilch surveillance capitalism.

Netopia has joined a server called EUpolicy.social, feel free to follow as almost 2000 others have already.

The real threat to Mastodon might not be the trolls, but the Silicon Valley EEE-playbook: Embrace, Extend, Extinguish. Ycombinator’s Hacker News has a good thread that explains the process (this is also where I learned about EEE!). Rather than head on attack or acquisition offers, Big Tech suffocates its challengers by integrating them. Let’s see if Mastodon becomes the decent town square it hopes to be. There is no lack of starry-eyed internet nostalgia in the way the fans talk about it. Bring back the old de-centralised web. Will Mastodon follow the all-too familiar path of centralization and re-intermediation? Will it be a flash in the pan, smothered by FAANG’s embrace? Or will it be able to learn from and avoid those mistakes that have so often be made?

We’ll see, in the meantime Twitter employees are jumping ship as Musk demands a “loyalty oath”. Perhaps they will start Mastodon-servers?

Netopia Spotlight: Felipe Buitrago – Orange Is the New Gold

Tuesday, November 8th, 2022

In 2013, two economists wrote the book The Orange Economy, showing how creative businesses have infinite potential for Latin America. They were Felipe Buitrago, later ambassador to Berlin and Minister of Culture for Colombia, and Iván Duque, who went on to become president of Colombia (2018-2022). In public office, they put the theory to use. Colombia is rich in agriculture, natural resources and tourism – did the orange economy policies take the Colombian economy to a new level? And can other countries apply the same methods? Netopia spoke with Felipe Buitrago to find out.

Download the book for free: The Orange Economy: An Infinite Opportunity (iadb.org)

 

Interview Transcript

Welcome to the Netopia video Spotlight – I have a very special guest today. He is the former ambassador to Germany for Colombia and also the former Minister for culture of Columbia. Welcome Felipe Buitrago.

Hi Per, nice to see you and your audience here.

 It is the 10th anniversary of this book, the Orange Economy. And I recommend that the viewers to read it, I think it still is one of the best, and it looks at the Creator economy. I mean it reads like almost like a textbook. You can use it in in education even, but first tell us what is the Orange Economy?

When we came up with the concept of the Orange Economy, we wanted it to be an umbrella term for the different concepts behind the creative economy, or the cultural and creative Industries, or the copyright protected industries. The idea here was that you need definitions for policymaking whether it’s protection of IP or whether it’s the promotion of labour diversity – what you need is to understand that there’s a connection between different activities. A chained sort of activities that add value that transform ideas into cultural or creative, goods or services, and just like the environmental movement, they use the green color as an umbrella term for different approaches to, to Environmental Policy, we wanted to provide such a, an umbrella terms.

The tagline for the book is “An Infinite Opportunity”…The Orange Economy, An infinite Opportunity. Did you see that Latin America was specific In this case, was there certain circumstances that made this in particular interesting for Latin America?

Yeah, I mean, because of the nature of the bank of the Inter-American Development Bank, our main focus was to put together information about Latin America and the Caribbean, however, the concepts are universal, so it works both ways. Certainly we were, we were not case study based so it’s not so strong. The data in terms of GDP is a strong on Latin America, but we wanted to highlight with the tagline was precisely that because we’re in the middle of this economic transformation. Remember the book was written ten years ago. Not even the concept of the fourth industrial revolution was going yet, but we wanted people to realize, especially policymakers was that this times of transformation the assets like the people’s talent, assets like our cultural heritage have infinite potential and you have to be aware of that potential and its limited possibilities in order to make proper policies. Otherwise you will just, you know, privilege the regular Industries and extractive industries because it’s, you know, where traditionally value is. But if something has been shown in the last 10 years, and in particular, in the process or in, the middle of the pandemic is that creative activities, creative industries are clearly expanding, and actually engaging more and more people with talent in order to create value for the society.

Yes, It’s fair to say that there has a lot of evidence has arrived to support your hypothesis. How was the book received when it when it was first published?

Well, it was very interesting, in principle our target audience was policymakers, but as part of our strategy to reach them, we realized we needed to reach a wider audience. That’s why we made a book that is mostly infographic in its design, even though it has sort of an academic content, I mean, it can be very easy used for reference book for Academia. But at the same time is very accessible in each language and structure. So we can reach a high wider audience, reaching a wider audience, was very important for us because we wanted voters to be interested. So politicians would be interested and you know who are the bosses of the policymakers: Politicians. So we wanted policymakers but in order to reach politicians with to reach a very popular audience and it’s been very well received. I mean, it’s a book that coming from multilateral organization already has more than 600 thousand downloads. Just as a point of reference, all the documents of the World Bank in 2014, got around 60,000 downloads, this was what we were getting just with one document from the IDB. I’m not trying to make this a competition, just making a comparison on how technical books coming from these organizations are usually not that popular and this is a book that is still getting over 1,000 downloads per month.

 

You wanted to reach the policy makers and the politicians, but in the end you became a policy maker yourself as the Minister for Culture of Columbia and your co-writer even look when he became the President actually, like you said, what were the most important policies that you made? Can you tell us about the transfer from theory to actual application of your work?

Well, the specific case for Colombia after the book, my co-author former President Ivan Duque he returned to Columbia and he ran for Senator. As a Senator, he presented a law is the, the law 1840 of 9th of 2017 is the Orange Law. This law creates body for coordination among the different Ministries that need to get together in order to do creative economy policy. So the ICT Ministry, the Labour Ministry, Education Ministry, the Culture Ministry. Of course, the different agencies that manages the promotion of the country for exports and investment and so on. 12 areas in total, but also highlighting the importance of the Intellectual Property Rights Protection, highlighting the importance of promoting Columbia as a destination for people with Talent or Investments and many, many other things after that, you have to implement that. And you also have the national planning law that comes every four years, when a new government takes place. So there we propel different incentives for people, especially social investment, social, corporate social responsibility investment that usually goes for different activities. We created specific incentives. So you would prefer to do that investment in building theaters or in supporting a festival and so on. But also we created incentives to acquire attracting investment in our Audio Visual industry, and all of it together, in a way that allowed us to multiply by four the available resources for culturing the country, without having to have to fight too strong for Budget because we created tax incentives, what we did is to allow for the private sector to invest massively in the cultural sector. But because this is a tax credit for the for the fiscal authorities, it reflects two years after the investment is done and the benefits for the society have been received. So it is not the promise that if you invest more in me, I will then return to you in some years with some employment and activity – no! In this case, we create the tax. credit, and people do the investment supporting a festival, not-for- profits, but also they do investment in for-profit activities. And then they get the tax breaks later. So it’s a win-win situation for investors and for the government and of course, for the society. We also work in the development of creative districts. so we created a special legislation for cities and small municipalities to define certain areas of the cities of their municipalities to define certain areas of the cities, we call them Orange Development Areas because in Spanish it goes like RNA, which like, DNA, you know, like changing the code, the genetic code of the cities. So they transform from Industrial hubs to commercial hubs into creating hubs and we managed to do it in about four years, about 95, new creative districts across the country of which about 40% put together a management bodies. So you have these associations between local authorities, the gifts of creators, but also the associations of entrepreneurs. And also very important, the associations of non-creative entrepreneurs because when you have a very public, you know, craft Association may be here but also on Advertising hub and maybe a Publishing House, you also need, you know, a bank in this area. And also you need restaurants and maybe hostels that can hold people and everything. So what we wanted to do is an integral approach. Embodying also the communities to because you cannot avoid gentrification, but you can manage it and the idea here is to manage it properly. So what you instead of destroying and identity of a community. You actually involve the community in evolution in the growing process of prosperity and participation of the, of the of the value of the land.

That’s really interesting to hear you explain that. I visited one of the creative hubs myself in Medellin this July and it was important, and now I see the context, but so what has been the result? Have you seen any long-lasting results? What are they from your Orange Economy policies?

I mean, short term for sure…. The easiest is the audiovisual sector. We have seen the audiovisual investment multiplied by 10.  So, so from about maybe 20, 30 million dollar in investment per year we jump to almost 300 million dollars investment in audio-visual production in Colombia from International Productions. It’s interesting because it’s not only the creation of lots of jobs, it’s also that because the investors require is so much well-trained people, they’re investing in the, in the training of our work technicians, but they also hiring our actors, our directors, our coordinators, and they have been demanding over, 150,000 nights of hotels for these productions. So this is a multiplier effect in the society and at the same time every production is putting Colombian images all over the world. So it’s also building up momentum for Colombian tourism industry.

So moving on to a different topic now and there’s a big conversation in Europe around the big technology companies from Silicon Valley, and how they how they have such a dominant power in the competition. And there’s a lot of Regulation around this topic, which is certainly a focus for a Netopia over the years as well. What is that discussion like in Columbia? I noticed on my visited Uber, for example, is not allowed. How do you talk about, what are your view on the big technology companies and the competition on their platforms?

Well, big platforms come with benefits, but also with risks, this particular case for Uber…. Uber is in a Grey-Zone where it is not forbidden and is not allowed. So it has to work in a very weird way. I know you can have Uber in Colombia, you can ask for an Uber, but the driver might get in trouble if it stopped by a cop and what it’s doing is not certified by some sort of contract. But then again, just like in transportation, when you have them audiovisual industry for instance, you have the free-to-air channel for television and the free-to-air come from an area where you have programmers for audiovisuals for programs for TV and now you have Netflix, you have Amazon Prime, you have Apple TV, you have HBO Plus, and you have all these big platforms, Disney Plus, and, and you can program it whatever way you like. And you can access contents from Colombia, from all that in America from all over the world. And the thing is, there’s no way Colombian TV stations, can invest the massive amounts of money that Disney, Netflix, Amazon can. Invest to complete in terms of the quality of the production. And, you want people to have access to that part of the production. But you also want people to have access to your stories. Something is happening, in this instant it we have created to attract the production of Netflix, Amazon Prime and all of these big network players is that they do produce their big movies and their big series for the international market but they all seem investing producing Colombian content. So, something that happened recently is that is the, the Pálpito… it’s the The Marked Heart, I think a Colombian series that actually became number one worldwide. It was actually produced by a friend in Colombia and it’s a very local Columbus story. They told it the old own Colombian way and it actually reach number one in Germany, probably in Sweden, probably in France. It was number one in the world for like two weeks earlier this year. And the interesting thing is when you find this equilibrium, and then you have to realize that you can get attached to the form. Like, having the traditional form of the channels for television, or you can engage with these platforms and ensure like for transportation, okay? ….you want to do Transportation? Okay, let’s ensure that you have insurance for the passengers. Let’s ensure that you make a proper screening process for the drivers and for the quality of the vehicles that they are safe to be driving around. Let’s make sure that you also pay taxes, and when you find this way, you evolve. It’s not easy, is not painless because you have these legacy systems that have entrenched privileges and in a way they have earned it because they have been paying you know, for those privileges. I mean they have been paying taxes, they have been paying fees. If you are a TV channel, you have paid, you know, royalty for the use of the spectrum. If you are a taxicab you have paid, you know, a medallion or a permit in order to circulate and offer the service… you need to find this equilibrium, you need to balance the costs but also ensure that people are not denied the benefits of these new technologies. So it’s a process and I think every country goes to this process, depending on its culture, its economic and technological development and also on how their political conversation is going on.

Felipe Buitrago, our time is up now, but I want to ask you one, last question, what are your plans now? Have you have you left politics for good?

Well, I’ve never been properly in politics. I always been a policy-junkie and I think I will remain one. I just think for the time-being I will move away from public office and I will try to do more like a consultancy and trying to also share the experience of Columbia and what we have learned during the last 10 years. Well, thank you so much and we love to see what you’re up to next.

Thanks for coming to Netopia Spotlight interview.

Thank you, it was fun to be here.

 

Readers are invited to download the book free: The Orange Economy: An Infinite Opportunity (iadb.org)

Spotify on Netflix Brings out Old Frenemies

Monday, November 7th, 2022

Netflix-mini series The Playlist tells the story of Spotify. It takes me back. I was not involved in Spotify, but I did work in the music industry in the 1990s (when Napster arrived). I have met many of those who appear as characters on the show: label boss Per Sundin. Pirate hunter Henrik Pontén (RIP). Pirate evangelist Peter Sunde. To mention some.

I am not the only one caught by nostalgia, many have stepped forward and shared their version of history – some fifteen years later. One of the most creative versions casts prosecutor Håkan Roswall as a Kremlin agent. And of course The Pirate Bay-spokesperson Peter Sunde takes the opportunity to do a bit of creative re-writing of history.

I have debated with Peter Sunde on several occasions (like here). He likes to paint me as a paid messenger for Big Entertainment. I always took that as confirmation that he had weak arguments and instead chose to attack my person. The truth is that while I have worked (and still work) for the entertainment industry in various arrangements, I always followed my moral compass. I have turned down many generous offers to work for business in order to keep doing this work. Sunde himself of course also made money as a pirate propagandist. The Pirate Bay took in Millions of SEK in advertising, court records show. The founders attempted (and failed) to sell their creation for 60 Million SEK. To my knowledge, Sunde owns and runs VPN-service Ipredator which charges a hardly altruistic €14 per month. In spite of this, I don’t believe Sunde is driven by commercial purposes. I am convinced he follows his moral compass. Only problem is that compass is more than a little off.

THE TPB’s IDEOLOGICAL ROOTS

How did The Pirate Bay get started? Most people would guess it was some wiz kid tech-experiment that stumbled across a convenient way to distribute pirate content and built from there. Some might say it was a commercial endeavour from the get-go. Neither was the case, however. Before The Pirate Bay there was The Pirate Bureau. The latter was a sort of anti-copyright think-tank which developed theories about how internet might change society (and overthrow capitalism). It was run by some bright people, most of whom moved on to academic careers. The name was a pun on copyright enforcement law firm The Anti-Pirate Bureau. Tongue-in-cheek attitude since day one (I admit some of the jokes were really good). The Pirate Bureau developed the concept for a large-scale file-sharing service. It started as an ideological project, which was then accelerated and made successful by a more hands-on tech-savvy group. The political arm of the movement – The Pirate Party – appeared later (after party leader Rick Falkvinge according to his own account saw a cartoon that said that the only thing that would bring a revolution would be a ban on The Pirate Bay). It all started as ideology, anti-copyright ideology as the cornerstone for the new digital world. Coincidentally precisely the same idea that Arch-Tech-mogul Peter Thiel described as the recipe for Silicon Valley’s rise to domination. No, I don’t believe they were co-ordinated, but the ideological roots are shared between the pirates and Big Tech, no matter how much the former try to be anti-capitalist.

ANALYZING SUNDE’s CLAIMS

In his comment to The Playlist, Peter Sunde makes some noteworthy remarks. That they wanted to help the artists. That the entertainment industry voices did not. That distribution is the most expensive part of the entertainment business. That Spotify was created to make money from advertising. That Netflix itself owes its existence to The Pirate Bay. And that he is unhappy with the facial hair on his character in The Playlist. Let’s take a closer look.

Did The Pirate Bay want to help artists? Artists did not ask them to upset the economic system that sustained their livelihood. As described above, TPB had completely different motives. Just because some artists complain about their record companies, does not mean Sunde and his gang did them a favour.

Did the entertainment industry voices not want to help the artists? Okay, admittedly I would be one of those voices so you, dear reader, will have to take my words with the caveat that I am biased. Plenty of people speaking on behalf of artists’ and creators’ organisations demanded that the illegal service be stopped. They had the mandate from the members by way of organizational democracy, but they were dismissed as being loyal to the system rather than the creators. Those artists that did speak up, such as Metallica and Madonna, were dismissed as being too rich and successful to be credible. And those smaller artists that spoke up on the other hand were insignificant according to the pirates. There was always something wrong with whomever spoke out against copyright infringement. Perhaps fair game, but the ugly part is that the pirates were also the first organized trolls. They invented the playbook for the alt-right, the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists, the incels and the lot. Swedish rapper Petter was one of the first targets and it was so bad he considered giving up on music. So much for helping the artists. Some of it was done with some love, such as when the Pirate Party Youth-section brought Henrik Pontén ginger bread for Christmas (in Swedish tradition, eating ginger bread is supposed to make you a nicer person). Most of it not so much, such as when the board members of The Anti-Pirate Bureau were sent flowers with the note “This is the first of your funeral bunch”. Yeah, I also received threats and our website was hacked (credit to The Pirate Bureau-profile Rasmus Fleischer for offering his commiserations). Perhaps we had it coming for defending artists’ rights, but it sure would be interesting to hear Sunde’s take on what a monster they spawned. (This summer an alt-right madman, radicalized online, murdered health policy expert Ing-Marie Wieselgren at the Almedalen opinion summit in Visby Sweden, but the investigation suggests his real target was Center Party leader Annie Lööf. I’m not saying the pirates are to blame, there are many who have taken advantage of the toxic online climate. But the pirates pioneered the hate speech MO which paved the way for this horror.)

Is distribution the most expensive part of the entertainment business? No. A CD or DVD costs less than one Euro to print and even less to ship, but sells at 10 or even 20 Euros (more for some DVDs at the peak). Retail might take 30% or so, but much of that must be considered marketing. The Pirate Bay did nothing for artists in terms of marketing, recording costs, creative support or royalty advances. In the words of former Billboard editor-in-chief Rob Levine “all it did was replace the trucks that brought the discs to the stores, but that doesn’t get you invited to any good parties” (on Napster, but the same applies to TPB).

Was Spotify set up to make money from advertising? Maybe. My impression is that most users pay subscriptions to get rid of the ads, but what do I know? In any case, if advertising is so wrong, why did Sunde’s own business The Pirate Bay use that model?

Does Netflix owe its existence to The Pirate Bay? Nah. Rather TPB stood in the way of Netflix morphing from snailmail-DVDs to online streaming. Reed Hastings – founder of Netflix – has explained that the mail-order DVDs was just a step on the way until digital streaming was possible. Rather the illegal market stood in the way of investment into legal services.

I will give Peter Sunde one concession though. His character’s moustache on The Playlist is not particularly flattering.

Putting the Art into ARTificial Intelligence

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

Recent developments have brought a discussion on whether machines can make art. Surely your social media has been flooded with Midjourney creations in recent weeks. The text-to-image software takes an input from a user and delivers an image generated by machine-learning algorithms drawing from a large corpus of images online. You may have also come across the debate about Theatre d’Opera Spatial, which won at Colorado state fair last month. Other AI content generators include Dall-E (text-to-image), Stable Diffusion (t2i), Runway (text-to-video), Plotagon (text-to-video) and many others.

This begs many questions: Who should be considered as creator? Will machines replace artists? And… can you compete in art?

But first – how new is this debate? South-African author JM Coetzee – a Nobel-prize winner – tells a fascinating story in his autobiographical Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II (Secker and Warburg, 2002). Working as a programmer in the UK in the 1960s, Coetzee programmed the big mainframe computers of the time. He describes how the computer was programmed to have a sort of intelligence, allowing it to prioritise and plan the various computation tasks that the programmers gave it. In his free time, the author programs the computer to write poetry. He writes that some of those poems were published by a news-paper in Johannesburg. (I have tried to find them, but no success.)

The discussion on AI and art is at least six decades old. Who should be considered creator in this case? Coetzee who programmed the poetry-AI and selected the works that were brought to the newspaper (perhaps also making edits)? The owner of the mainframe computer? The original programmer of the operating system that could prioritise its tasks?

The same questions come with the recent AI art discussion, but with one more layer: the text-to-image systems mentioned above are machine learning systems looking at big corpuses (or is that corpi?) of images online. Someone made the images that the AI was trained on. Several people have made the point that the AI would be useless without those works and the creators and rights-owners ought to be duly compensated.

The games industry has used what is there called procedural content generation systems at least since 1990s. Remember Sid Meier’s Civilization? IMHO the most captivating game of all time. You start with an all-blacked out map, except a small spot where you see what is around you. As you explore the map, you find mountains, rivers, seas and all kinds of landscapes. The map is new every time. No one made those maps by hand, the software generated them. It would be a very time-consuming (and tedious!) task to make hundreds of thousands of maps by hand. 2021 hit Valheim is a modern-day example using the same technology. Does this take away jobs from map-makers? No, the games would not have been feasible without this technology. (The copyright questions are not concerning as this is in-house technology.)

Surely, we will see the more technologies like these. Perhaps a text-to-game AI will be next? The point of license for the material that goes into training the machine-learning will need to be addressed.

Should Jason Allen’s Colorado art prize be recalled? He was transparent about the creative process. He made edits to the AI-generated image. He made a number of versions. If someone would use the artwork without permission, it is likely that he would win the lawsuit. The protection is perhaps weaker than some other works, but this case is rather clear. Copyright is not always binary. AI is.

The AI Effect

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

Artificial intelligence – defining it is like trying to lift water with your hands. It escapes definition, in part maybe because it’s such a broad and developing concept. In part maybe because it has such mythical proportion (Can it “wake up”? Might it wipe out the human race? Can it fix global warming?). In part maybe because it is the domain of especially smart experts. Or maybe for other reasons, in any case the concept of AI is both real business and a canvas onto which we project our fears and dreams.

AI seems to always be just around the corner, never quite here. Like a mirage, the oasis in the desert that keeps moving away as you approach. Or that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that no-one seems to be able to find because the rainbow disappears when you get near. Or like Xeno’s myth of Achilles who could never quite catch up with the turtle. This phenomenon has a name: “The AI effect”. What we think of as AI is always in the future. As soon as it is brought into our everyday lives, it loses it mythical qualities. It becomes as mundane as the everyday problems it is meant to solve. The magic falls away.

Consider machines reading and understanding text – optical character recognition or OCR. In the 1960’s this was the frontier of AI research. These days we use it every time we pay our bills without thinking twice. No mystery there. No one calls it artificial intelligence anymore, now it’s just a way save some time.

How about book or film recommendations based on your past choices? Analyzing such data and making personalized recommendations used to be science fiction. Still a focus area for research today, but we encounter them each time we shop online or watch some episodes of The Americans. We might laugh at their often useless recommendations, but it has no God-like qualities.

Voice-recognition, route recommendations, enemies in games, chatbots, financial advice tools, facial recognition and filters, automated photo albums, memories on social media, internet search, personalized ads… not to mention the calendar reminders (how about four reminders from different softwares for the appointment that had already been cancelled anyway?). The list can be made very long, but for each of them the pattern is that they moved from fantasy to boring the instant we started using them.

This is the AI effect, a psychological phenomenon that has more to do with human nature than technology. The AI-revolution is of the slower kind, it changes our world not in great leaps but in baby steps. It changes the work-life, our habits, our consumption… it relies on public investment, research, competition and loads of data. It contributes both to power-concentration and better toys.

Trying to understand, and not least make policy for it, we may be better off looking back than forward. If or when self-driving cars break through, they will already be yesterday’s news. And when Skynet becomes self-aware, we might collectively yawn because we’re looking at time-machines or teleporters or just a way to tell the AI that we already bought that kettle it keeps advertising to us.

Nobel Laureate Calls Oversight Board “Deflection” – She Is Right and Here Is How

Monday, June 20th, 2022

The most powerful moment at the recent Wexfo World Expression Forum was when Maria Ressa held Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s hand on the closing panel as she explained that the organization Thorning-Schmidt fronts is a deflection.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt is a superstar in European policy, former primer minister of Denmark for the Labour party. Her husband is Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock who challenged Margaret Thatcher in UK politics in the 1980’s. These days, HTS appears on panels as the chair of the Oversight board – you know the supposedly independent committee that was put in place to advise Meta on publishing ethics and to which users can complain. Advice being the operative word, no duty for Meta to follow it.

Maria Ressa is a Nobel Peace Price Laureate, a Filipino-American journalist, author and free speech-activist who was sentenced to jail by for online libel following her investigative reporting on Philippines-president Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights crimes. She is a worthy winner, having fought for the truth and taken much risk. Ressa’s news channel Rappler started as a Facebook-page, but more recently she has criticized Facebook for not acting on how its platform is weaponized against journalists.

So Maria Ressa held HTS’s hand as she softly told her that the Oversight board is a deflection, comforting her as a person but relentlessly criticizing her work. It was strange and beautiful to watch, such a powerful and yet loving move. And Ressa is right.

On the day before, Dex Hunter-Torricke had appeared on a different Wexfo-panel. His title is a mouthful: Vice President of Global Communications & Public Engagement for Meta’s Oversight Board. Discussing the Oversight Board’s role, he said that there is no single solution that will fix all problems online. As if anyone had thought so! He said it to play down the board’s power, but of course all anyone could ask for is for them to live up to their mission and make sure that Meta plays by the same rules as anyone else distributing content in the public sphere. You know… press ethics.

Lo and behold, what did Helle Thorning-Schmidt say on the Day 2-panel? That there is no single solution that will fix all problems online. That’s right, Meta’s spin doctors could use some more overtime on their talking points. Or even better, they could write real answers instead of… deflection.

The Oversight board can only criticise bad take-downs, not material that stays up. It’s a one-way streetsign. No use for privacy, fake news, copyright or such problems then. No need for Meta to worry about that. Anyway, Meta seems to take the independence very literally, following the board’s guidance when it wants. 14 of the 18 recommendations to date have been implemented. Earlier this spring, Meta turned to the board for advice on how to moderate content relating to Russia’s renewed war in Ukraine. Except Meta got cold feet and withdrew the request, with no further explanation than “ongoing safety concerns”. Perhaps Meta agrees that even the Oversight board is not a single solution to fix all the problems online?

So Difficult to Make Good Propaganda these Days

Friday, June 17th, 2022

It’s so difficult to make good propaganda these days. Or perhaps it was always the case.

Many moons ago, I did mandatory army service in Sweden. The officers once showed us a propaganda film from Russia, covering a big army exercise. One shot was from inside an airplane carrying paratroopers. The camera zoomed in on two soldiers and the voice-over said “when we filmed this, we did not know that these two would become heroes”. Then there was some story of how one had saved the other when one parachute failed to open properly. Very easy to see through, hard to imagine how anyone would buy it, am I right?

Fast-forward to the renewed Russian war in Ukraine and the attached propaganda. On February 22nd (two days before the renewed invasion), Russia claimed a terrorist attack had killed three people in a car in Donetsk and used that for a casus belli. However, on closer inspection, the story was as full of holes as the paratroopers thirty years before – investigative reporting from Bellingcat demonstrated that the incident had been manufactured and the dead bodies likely had been taken from a morgue and put in the burnt-out car.

Speaking at the recent Wexfo – World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway, Bellingcat’s executive director Christo Gozev explained their work method. Not looking for sources, but verifiable facts. Through “open-source intelligence” (looking at publicly available sources) Bellingcat geo-locates and “chrono-locates” images, videos and other content and thus investigates stories. “Shared facts lead to shared values” said Gozev.

Some propaganda may be more difficult to dismiss for anyone without special training or access to tools – think about deep fakes for example – the answer is not that we are post-truth and all information is equal. Rather, this is a moment for proper investigative reporting and for us readers to choose carefully which reporting we put our trust in. And perhaps educate ourselves on some critical thinking…

Done right, we can see through at least the most obvious cases of propaganda, such as claims that one of the bomb victims in Mariupol was an actor. Brings to mind an epistemology principle often quoted in cheap crime fiction: Occam’s Razor – the explanation with the fewest parameters is likeliest to be true.

Maybe it’s not so difficult after all to make good propaganda these days. But we can make it difficult for it to have an impact.

The Power of Ownership – Follow Musk

Friday, May 6th, 2022

There was no shortage of jokes last week, when superstar tech entrepreneur and (maybe) richest man in the world Elon Musk announced his bid to buy all the shares in Twitter. Some of the best jokes were cracked by Musk himself, such as buying Coca-Cola and putting the cocaine back in.

First, let me come clean and say I’m sort of a Musk fanboy. I love the Tesla cars and that company has put pressure on the entire automotive industry to move to electric drive. Also fascinated by Space X and curious about Starlink (usual ISP-liability issues to follow though). Neuralink is more creepy and some of Musk’s tweeting… let’s say it takes some effort to love it.

A lot has been said about Musk’s plans for Twitter. Rolling back some of the restrictions and community rules, as well as some new features can be expected. Some say that might bring back Donald Trump to Twitter, which can be a blessing or the end of the world depending on your politics (I’m in the latter camp if you must know, surprise surprise). Elon Musk’s view of freedom of speech leaves some room for improvement, he himself has tried to cancel those who disagree with him on  several occasions. (Remember the boys stuck in the cave in Thailand? Musk hired an investigator to dig up dirt on the journalist who called his failed rescue sub a “PR stunt”.)

But this blog takes away something else from this story: the power of ownership. Musk doesn’t like the direction of his favourite online platform. So he buys it to make it more the way he wants it to be. Netopia has pondered before how to make Big Tech act more responsibly and clean up its own mess. Staff walk-outs, government intervention, ad boycotts… nothing seems to do the trick. But taking a page from Elon Musk, it’s the owner who has the ultimate power. The owner is the one who can bring change.

Great if you are the (maybe) richest man in the world, you might say. But do you know who owns Big Tech? Take a look in the mirror. A majority of the value of Big Tech shares is held by institutions. That means your pensions and mine. Our savings. Meta (Facebook): 80% institutions. Alphabet (Google) 67%. Amazon 67%. Apple 60%. Sure, there are portfolio managers who control these investments and not all shares have the same vote. But still: What if we were to take a page from Elon Musk and actually use some of this power? What would you do? Put the cocaine back in? Save democracy? Make the internet great again?