January 2014
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A Shameful Architecture

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I acquired my first email account in 1984. My “handle” was 74666,1406@compuserve.com and I used a NEC 8201 notebook computer to access email from home. In the office I had a Morrow Microdecision computer running CP/M but I don’t think we had email there yet. When a few years later someone called me an email “pioneer”, I replied that in 1984 I knew a lot of people who had had email since 1978, so I didn’t feel like a pioneer.

I was aware of the Internet: its primary use was to exchange information (and, as I learned, vituperation) in newsgroups. It was in use worldwide by about 75,000 people, mainly military and scientific. I was interested but the learning curve in connecting to it seemed too high. Anyway, the interest and diversity of the Compuserve forums was sufficient. I became assistant moderator of Compuserve’s law forum for some years.

As I developed a law specialty in electronic communications in the late eighties, I also became involved with proponents of the FIDO bulletin board system and attended their national meeting in Cleveland. I was fascinated by the idea of a voluntary, home-made, modular, decentralized architecture, where anyone could attach a server to the system and receive and forward email and files. This was the opposite of the system I was used to, monolithic Compuserve which was a large commercial corporation. Compuserve told its users what the rules were, but the FIDO sysops evolved their own. I saw the FIDO system as an electronic instantiation of freedom and democracy. As the Internet moved to the front and center and the bulletin board systems faded away, I completely bought and helped propagate the hype which began with books like Rheingold’s Virtual Community.

More than twenty years later, I regard the Internet as a hugely missed opportunity and find myself daydreaming that the FIDO sysops will come out of retirement and build another Internet, an alternative one not dominated by Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Like any polity, it was impossible to maintain equality on the Internet between common people and billionaires. If I can sum up what went wrong in one sentence, that is it. The billionaires have warped the architecture to suit their own purposes in a way that, while not completely preventing the use of the Internet by small and independent voices, has turned it into an architecture for marketing and worse, for both watching and manipulating consumers. This has necessitated an architecture of back doors and secretive access points which I believe has, due to a general lack of security, greatly facilitated all kinds of invasions including the distribution of viruses and spyware.

Here are a few of my formative experiences which have given me insight into the terrible rottenness of Internet architecture.

The long arm of Microsoft. Long having hated Microsoft, I made an abortive attempt to escape to the Mac world a few years ago, purchasing a used Macbook from a store in my Long Island town. The owner, whose theory of caveat emptor later became quite clear, never told me that the computer had a discontinued Apple chip, that no upgrades or new software would ever be available, or that the copy of Microsoft Office loaded on it was apparently not kosher. I would never knowingly use pirated software, but naively assumed that anything resident on a computer I bought in what I thought was a reputable store would be legal.

Some months later, I saw a dialog asking if I wanted to upgrade Office to the latest release, and answered yes. Microsoft then locked my copy of Office, and asked me to enter a key to re-enable it. When I contacted the store owner, he said, “I can’t help you with that”, and offered to sell me another copy of Office. I gave the Macbook to charity and returned unwillingly to the Windows world.

While the guy who sold me the computer takes the primary blame, I am astonished by what Microsoft did. If someone sells you a bedroom set on credit, and you fail to make payments, they can’t legally come into your living room and take it back; they have to follow a legal process to get an order. Microsoft unilaterally, without any use of law, reached out and shut me down. The company did not care that I was in good faith, thought I owned the product, nor did it offer me any way to contact it and attempt to regularize the situation, short of entering the required key. Microsoft did not care that I might have been working on a Supreme Court brief which had to be filed by five that afternoon. In short, the company, to protect its view of its own product rights, acted brutally and arbitrarily.

What’s more, Microsoft was largely responsible for building the architecture which made that despotism possible. While it is convenient to be able to upgrade your software via the Internet, Microsoft took an illogical and immoral leap in concluding that this capability should include its own ability to shut a user down via the Internet. If you imagine yourself as a somewhat (but not completely) amoral participant in the design meeting considering this issue, you might have suggested some less brutal alternatives. If someone tries to upgrade an illegal installation, Microsoft could refer the information to its attorney, and send a cease and desist email, for example, or put up a dialog which invites the user to call a number at Microsoft to legalize their copy. This dialog could even include a time limit: if we haven’t heard from you in five days, we will shut your copy down. The solution Microsoft chose was, characteristically, the one which treated the user as an object existing solely for the company’s convenience, rather than an independent human whose allegiance it wishes to earn and keep, and who may actually erroneously believe, as I did, he has a legal copy.

Overloaded small computers. Another feature of PC-Internet interaction that you yourself may deal with without giving it too much thought is the constant need to upgrade your machine to keep up with developments. Some readers may also still (as their parents did in the 1960’s) buy or lease a new car every year. I am of the opposite ilk: I want to drive my cars, and use my computers, for a good ten years. I can imagine your reaction: that is like saying I wanted to continue using my Morrow Microdecision until 1994, right?

Not at all. My Microdecision had no hard drive; it operated (like my first Windows PC’s) with two floppy disk drives. It had only 64K RAM if I remember correctly. The PC’s I had by 1994 had additional strengths and capabilities that I needed.

It has been almost twenty years since I personally needed to upgrade a computer to take advantage of a benefit I wanted. I need larger, faster, more powerful computers today to accommodate all the crap the corporations have added to the architecture for their own benefit, not mine.

I use a computer principally as a writing machine, and sometimes to stream movies. I don’t play massive video games, edit films, create or even play music. The last major new application for which I needed more power was the World Wide Web circa 1994. The technology of word processing was already pretty sophisticated as of the Wordstar program I ran on my Morrow, or the very similar Microsoft Word to which I switched a few years later. Changes even to these programs, like Microsoft’s introduction of a docx format not backwardly compatible to earlier versions of Word, seem suspiciously intended to benefit the company by forcing you to upgrade or buy a new product, rather than offering any new functionality or power I needed.

Ironically and very sadly, my Morrow carried out its word processing duties with blinding speed compared to my PC today. It came up faster, saved a file faster, and froze or crashed much less often than any computer I have owned these last twenty years. Just last night, working on an old slow PC running OpenOffice, I lost paragraphs of a manuscript twice, once when the computer froze, and the second time when it abruptly rebooted in midsentence (and then told me it had done so to install a security upgrade I knew nothing about).

I have a vision that, if your needs are as simple as mine, you shouldn’t have to spend $2500 or $5000 on a new PC. It is part of human nature that everything, regardless of how it is priced, has an intrinsic “fair price”: I might see 12 or 15 Broadway shows a year if the price was still $47.50, but I won’t see even one for $250. My vision of what a slimmed down writing machine should cost me: $250 to $500.

It was very interesting that the market agreed with me a few years ago, but it turned out to be a scam. By 2010 or so, there were so-called “netbooks” on the market, from companies like Acer and HP, which were priced at $250. These were small laptops with full keyboards, no DVD drive, relatively small RAM and storage compared to laptops still costing five or ten times as much.

I owned two of these, one from Acer and one from HP, and they both became unusable within a year. There were two problems. The machines, even without the pre-installed garbage, were simply too small and slow to handle all the cookies and scripts you encounter on every Internet visit. I would watch web pages load endlessly, and track at the bottom the surprising accretion of twenty or thirty other sites from which the website I was accessing was trying to load scripts and functionality, all of which was designed to serve the marketing and tracking needs of the host, and none of which was giving me a better user experience. It all began with cookies, but now it seems there’s so much more. None of which really does anything for me, and nobody ever asked permission.

To add insult to injury, the machines had a lot of commercial crap installed which functioned very badly. On the HP netbook, which is the single worst piece of computer garbage I ever purchased, I never bought the pre-loaded Norton security trial package, opting for the free AVG software instead. Every time I turned the computer on, I had to wade through a series of screens and dialogs, visibly slowing the load time, which in lurid language told me Norton had expired and I was Unprotected Against Internet Threats. There was no visible way to turn this nonsense off.

Even AVG has, sadly, learned to play this game. On another old PC, I tried a free trial of an AVG disk optimizer, then chose not to pay for a license. Now, every time I turn that computer on, I see a very invasive and insulting series of AVG dialogs, which cannot be turned off--when you click the little “x” in the right hand corner, instead of closing the window, it launches more dialogs at you.

Think about the fact that formerly reputable and respectable companies--HP is one of the oldest computer companies around--now feel entitled to treat you like a mark, and I hope you will feel as stunned as I do.

The new monopolies There was at the outset a concept that you had a choice: you could still pay $20 a month or so for email and see no ads, or choose the new free email services and view advertisements. Now the pay services have all died off; Compuserve is gone, AOL is free. I still pay for my jw@bway.net address, but bway.net is a dinosaur in the field (I’ve mantained it to keep that address). The trade off with the free services, which have become not just the standard but really the only choice, is the amount of data they maintain on you. They are not just serving you ads, but targeted ads. At age 59, I tend to see advertisements for scooters and products for diabetics, which I find rather offensive.

Google’s “Don’t be evil” corporate slogan is a stunning act of chutzpah. Google is the prime player in a new world of monopoly power. You may remember that the Department of Justice once intervened to prevent Microsoft from merging the browser with the operating system. Yet that is exactly what Google Chrome is. Android then integrates a large chunk of the available cell phone market, so that Google can keep track of you across all your devices.

Once upon a time, at its inception in the prehistory of 1995, the Spectacle had an independent following. I still get email sometimes from people who look for every new issue, but in the intervening years I got lazy like many other speakers and relied on Google placement to drive readers. At one time, if you did a search on “Auschwitz”, my Auschwitz Alphabet material, published in the June 1995 issue, was the third search result. Now that Google has a monopoly on search, it is in the position of determining access to all content everywhere. Google keeps changing the prioritization rules, and the impact on the Spectacle has been profound. Once, I got two or three emails a week from readers of my Auschwitz essays. I haven’t gotten an email about this material in some years.

Yes, I can do more to network and to market my site outside the hierarchies of power, and I can learn the techniques of search engine optimization and try to improve my placement again. All of which avoids the point: why should a single private player in the marketplace get to decide what speech is heard? Even government shouldn’t do that.

Viruses. I am not a programmer, but I suspect it would be a whole lot easier to create a virus-resistant architecture if the large corporations weren’t so insistent on leaving back doors for themselves, like the one Microsoft exploited to shut down my copy of Office.

Surveillance. There has been a lot of chatter about government requiring its own back door on communications servers or a routine turnover of metadata. However, to put that in perspective, the companies--Microsoft, Google, Facebook, et al--already have us under surveillance and have built an entire architecture to facilitate learning as much about us as possible. It seems late and slight for them to argue that they shouldn’t have to share with government the spying they’ve already done. How about cutting it off at the pass by not permitting the companies themselves to build the surveillance into the architecture?

Conclusion. The awful truth: the whole Internet/PC structure is optimized as a tool for keeping track of you, managing you, selling you product while influencing and determining your behavior. Which is a far cry from the DIY democracy of FIDO.