Tag Archive: Internet

The madness of net scare stories

Computer rage (Copyright: Thinkstock)

“Is the web driving us mad?” asked Newsweek magazine, in a cover story that fuelled some frantic global debate on technology and mental health. “Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts,” it noted, in terms likely to have most concerned parents rushing to rip plug sockets out of their walls. “Normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways,” it added.

As sites like Mindhacks (co-written by BBC Future columnist Tom Stafford) have already argued in response, the evidence behind such claims is rather more tenuous than the article might have you believe. One of the pieces of research cited, for example, linking web use to “blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends”, was later accompanied by a follow-up study involving 208 of the original study’s respondents (which the article doesn’t mention) that showed these negative effects dissipated with time. Similarly – as has been noted on BBC Future, among other places – the notion that the internet is uniquely perilous in its ability to “rewire our brains” is not nearly as alarming as its sounds, not least because pretty much every other sustained mental activity we undertake also has a “rewiring” effect.

More generally, though, there’s a profound problem encoded in questions like “is the web driving us mad?”. For beneath a sporadic veneer of neuroscience and behavioural research, they represent an attempt to conjure a definitive moral perspective on an entire communications medium. Which is a little like asking someone “are books good or bad?”, and then basing the entire future of your society (should you be burning these things or giving them out free in schools?) on a definitive response to something that can never meaningfully be answered in binary terms.

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If the internet is a global phenomenon, it’s because there are fiber-optic cables underneath the ocean. Light goes in on one shore and comes out the other, making these tubes the fundamental conduit of information throughout the global village. To make the light travel enormous distances, thousands of volts of electricity are sent through the cable’s copper sleeve to power repeaters, each the size and roughly the shape of a 600-pound bluefin tuna.Once a cable reaches a coast, it enters a building known as a “landing station” that receives and transmits the flashes of light sent across the water. The fiber-optic lines then connect to key hubs, known as “Internet exchange points,” which, for the most part, follow geography and population.

The majority of transatlantic undersea cables land in downtown Manhattan where the result has been the creation of a parallel Wall Street geography, based not on the location of bustling trading floors but on proximity to the darkened buildings that house today’s automated trading platforms. The surrounding space is at a premium, as companies strive to literally shorten the wire that connects them to the hubs.


The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly. The plans show that the bureau believes it can use information pulled from social media sites to better respond to crises, and maybe even to foresee them.

The information comes from a document released on 19 January looking for companies who might want to build a monitoring system for the FBI. It spells out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential contractors to reply by 10 February.

The bureau’s wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically search “publicly available” material from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations, online crime and other FBI missions. Agents would be alerted if the searches produce evidence of “breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats”.

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Sopa and e-Parasite

Sopa and e-Parasite aim to tackle online piracy by preventing Google and Yahoo from directing users to sites distributing stolen material. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Congressional leaders are preparing to shelve controversial legislation aimed at tackling online piracy after president Barack Obama said he would not support it.

California congressman Darrell Issa, an opponent of Sopa, the Stop Online Piracy Act, said he had been told by House majority leader Eric Cantor that there would be no vote unless there is consensus on the bill.

“The voice of the internet community has been heard. Much more education for members of Congress about the workings of the internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal,” said Issa.

The news is a major blow for Sopa’s backers in Hollywood, who had enjoyed broad support in Congress. But the Motion Pictures Association of America, one of the bill’s biggest sponsors, said it would continue to press for new laws. “The failure to pass meaningful legislation will result in overseas websites continuing to be a safe haven for criminals stealing and profiting from America,” the MPAA said in a blogpost.

The tech community has fought hard to stop Sopa and a rival bill, Protect IP, also known as the Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act, or the e-Parasite act. Websites including Reddit and Wikipedia are planning to “go dark” on Wednesday in protest against the legislation. Issa said he remained concerned about Protect IP, which will go before the Senate on 24 January.

But both bills now look severely damaged after the White House came out firmly against their biggest proposals at the weekend.

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What do you do when Hollywood and the government team up to enforce censorship on the internet with the likes of SOPA and Protect-IP? Launch another government-free internet, of course.

During the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin back in August — an annual hacker conference sponsored by the German Chaos Computer Club — a team of German hackers revealed plans to launch their own communication satellites into space in order to create a separate, “uncensorable” network called the Hackerspace Global Grid (HGG).

“The first goal is an uncensorable Internet in space. Let’s take the Internet out of the control of terrestrial entities,” said activist Nick Farr.

According to the report, the team will start by launching three prototype ground stations in the first half of 2012, and then launch at least one satellite into low orbit to communicate specifically with those stations. “It’s kind of a reverse GPS,” explained Armin Bauer, an HGG participant. “GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are. We would use GPS coordinates but also improve on them by using fixed sites in precisely-known locations.”

The group stated that the ground stations will cost around $130 USD each to establish, but the satellite itself will require a substantial amount of financial backing, as it will need to hitch a ride with a rocket rather than float up into the cold void via a balloon-based solution. Additional reports claim that the satellite will likely be based on work done to develop low-cost satellites by the Amateur Radio Satellite (AMSAT) association in England and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

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Piracy vs. an open Internet

In seeking to protect copyright holders from online piracy, especially from sites overseas, bills in both the House and Senate go to risky extremes.

To avoid the reach of U.S. copyright laws, numerous online pirates have set up shop in countries less willing or able to enforce intellectual property rights. Policymakers agree that these “rogue” sites pose a real problem for U.S. artists and rights holders who aren’t getting paid for the rampant distribution of their music, movies and other creative works. The question is how to help them. Lawmakers keep offering proposals, but they don’t seem to be getting any closer to the right answer.

The latest, HR 3261, comes from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and a dozen co-sponsors. Dubbed the Stop Online Piracy Act, it’s designed to isolate foreign websites that commit or “facilitate” willful copyright infringements by cutting off their funding and shrinking their U.S. audience. In that sense, it’s similar to its counterpart in the Senate, S 968, the PROTECT IP Act, which the Judiciary Committee has approved.

Both bills go to risky extremes, however, in their efforts to stop these sites from attracting an audience. Of the two, the House bill goes further down the wrong path, weakening protections for companies — including those based in the United States — that enable users to store, publish or sell goods online. The change could force such companies to monitor everything their users do, turning them into a private security force for copyright and trademark owners.

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Internet Rising is a digital documentary exploring the evolving relationships between the Internet and the collective consciousness of humanity.

The Internet is more than just a series of tubes, but how many people can actually describe the physical structure of the networks we use every day? Ben Mendelsohn explores this subject in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a short documentary.

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