Posted tagged ‘internet’

The un-networked internet

January 8, 2013

Here’s an interesting – and crazy – development. If you were to scroll through the posts in this blog, you would find that in many of them I have linked to newspaper reports relevant to the topic. What I didn’t know is that my doing so may have exposed me to a very significant financial risk. Why? Because the newspapers, in Ireland at least, have decided that they own the copyright to the URLs of any articles or items in their publications, and that they are entitled to charge anyone who publishes the URL. Let me be quite specific: this is not about an unauthorised reproduction of a newspaper article or any part of it; this is about mentioning the URL link only.

So for example, yesterday morning one Irish newspaper published a report on a heatwave in Australia. If you want to read about it – or since we have Australian readers here, if you want to verify its accuracy – you can find it right here. Go and have a look. But because I have just given you the link, I have, apparently, infringed that newspaper’s copyright and am now liable to be sued. More particularly, they may claim I should pay them €300 for providing the link. How do I know all this? Because the body representing Irish newspapers, National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), recently decided to take action against the charity Women’s Aid (of all people) because the latter had on their website linked to newspaper articles about them. Thankfully the charity is being supported in its defence pro bono by Dublin solicitor Simon McGarr.

If you think this is mad, then you are absolutely right. If we all have a copyright to URLs of sites we control – and it’s not just newspapers, obviously, who have websites – and if we can prevent others from mentioning these URLs by demanding stupid money before allowing them to do so, then we can bring the whole internet crashing down. The URL link is the heart of the world wide web; take it away, and there’s nothing left. This could become a particular issue in the academic world, in which the free exchange of internet links has become an important tool.

For the record, NNI have claimed that they would only want to prevent the commercial use of such links, but that’s nonsense because their chosen target, Women’s Aid, clearly was not in the business of commercial gain; and the charity did not reproduce any of the content of these newspaper articles, just the URL. NNI say they have no objection to the ‘personal’ use of internet links, but what on earth does that mean? Is my blog post here ‘personal’?  In any case, on what basis would anyone think that they owned a copyright to a URL? Or do I also have rights in relation to my postal address? Can I charge anyone who lists my address for whatever purpose, or indeed those who put it on an envelope? Or can I charge anyone who sends me an email for using my email address without my permission?

Of course, maybe I’m going at this the wrong way. I’ve just calculated that there have been, since June 2008, just under 6,000 links on other websites to this blog. Should I perhaps be writing out bills to the tune of €1.8 million? And by the way, roughly €7,000 worth of those bills would be going to newspapers who linked to my blog, in the run of their commercial business.

I am a genuine supporter of the quality Irish press, who do a great job and maintain some really good newspapers. But this particular move is beyond silly.

The horrors of easy access to information

November 6, 2012

Nearly 45 years ago I submitted a school project at the end of the term. I thought I had done a pretty good job. On the whole the teacher marking it agreed, but he added the following qualification. ‘I really didn’t like your use of Encyclopaedia Britannica as source for some of your facts.’ I thought I had better see him and find out what was wrong. Had my use of the encyclopaedia corrupted the analysis in any way? Were the facts taken from it incorrect? No, none of that. He just didn’t like Encyclopaedia Britannica, largely because, as he put it, ‘using it is just too easy.’

Before you rush to judgment, remember I was 13 years old and not exactly producing an article for a refereed journal. So, as he told me he had deducted nearly 10 per cent from my marks for this use of sources, I felt I had suffered something of an injustice; not least because I had assembled other sources as well.

Fast forward to 2012, and for Encyclopaedia Britannica substitute Wikipedia; in fact, add the whole internet. There is now part of a whole generation of ageing  academics who on the whole seem to think that, with the internet, research has become too easy for students; or maybe, they have so much easy access to information that they are ‘distracted’ by it and do inadequate work as a result. That, as it happens, is what a survey of teachers conducted by the Pew Research Center found in the United States. I suspect the results would be similar over here.

Of course easy access to information is not always a straightforward benefit. But it is still a benefit. I am not a supporter of the view that information is too precious to be made openly available to the uninitiated, or that it should only be used with the accompanying analysis of someone older and wiser. Indeed, when the printing press first became popular very similar arguments were made then. The task for teachers is not to persuade themselves that all this information and data ‘distracts’ students, but to ensure that students are trained and guided in its use. But we should avoid giving the impression that knowledge is too valuable to be openly shared. That is not what the academy is about.

Commenting freely

January 31, 2012

In the age of the internet, the aristocracy of commentary has been deposed. You can, if you are so minded, turn to the leader writers of the old newspapers to get a perspective on what is happening at home and abroad, but you could just as easily turn to an interactive website, or the space at the bottom of opinion pieces on newspaper sites where you and I can enter comments. And boy, do we enter comments! By the truckload, actually. Some of them are totally bizarre and crazy, and a good few of them are either obscene or libellous. Well, depending on where you are browsing. But others are real contributions to the national and global conversation.

However, right now some websites are beginning to wonder whether this facility is a good idea, and whether the risks from open comments are greater than the benefits. Given the sheer volume, moderation is not usually a realistic option. So it may turn out to be the case that the anarchic but often lively forum for loud debate provided by large circulation websites will decline. Perhaps.

But actually, are not universities meant to be spaces for open discussion? So where are the websites hosted by higher education institutions that provide an opportunity for intellectual debate? As higher education itself, but also the world in which it is set, loses so many of its traditional assumptions, should there not be a space where this can be assessed and critiqued by the community? It is time for the academy to be a virtual debating chamber to which all have access.

Online worlds

July 30, 2011

I recently attend a dinner party at which there was a lively debate about the online experience offered by social networking sites. The overwhelming majority view of those present (average age probably around 58) was that the internet was destroying the traditional concept of a ‘community’ by persuading social networkers that what they were experiencing represented genuine social interaction. It was however not, one person present suggested, a real experience st all: virtual networking was at best a fantasy. A real network needed real human interaction, real meetings, the touch of another human, and people looking into each others’ eyes.

Well, yesterday and today I have been in Los Angeles attending Vidcon, which describes itself as a ‘yearly conference for people who like video’. In fairness, that doesn’t describe it at all. It is a conference for those who reach out to the world on youtube, who broadcast themselves or who ‘follow’ others who do so. There are probably some 4,000 or so people attending the event. I am here to accompany my son, who is an enthusiastic fan of several youtube broadcasters.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I have found can best be described as a very lively and very real community. Many of these people have never met ‘in the flesh’ before, but they relate to each other instantly and know each other almost intimately. The opportunity to meet probably adds something, but it isn’t what has established the spirit of community: that derives specifically from the online element.

Maybe we just need to reconsider what constitutes ‘community’. In fact, through email and the web and social networking I know people all over the world, and often feel that they are part of that more intimate circle we regard as genuine friends. So on the whole it is my view that the internet, far from destroying the concept of a community, has enhanced it. If it shut down tomorrow, I would feel a great sense of personal loss.

So I feel that we should stop worrying about all the nasty things we fear the internet is doing socially; instead we should embrace it.

A web of confusion

January 28, 2011

As I have noted previously, these days the main ‘shop window’ in which a university presents its programmes, facilities and services to a wider world is its worldwide web homepage. Anyone wanting to make contact with it is likely to look there first, and therefore it is very important that the institution presents itself well. A few weeks ago I had a look at the Irish university websites, and on the whole I did not think they were well designed. Yesterday I investigated the home pages of 14 British universities. I am inclined to conclude that, like their Irish counterparts, they mostly don’t get it right.

Here are some of the key problems.

First, what almost all (except one, to which I return in a moment) get terribly wrong is the sheer busy-ness of the page. Generally it is full of small print and densely formatted text, with a vast array of links that are not usually organised in a user-friendly way. It is my view that a homepage should not give more than nine or ten clickable links, and that these should be presented in a visually accessible way. In fact, most have dozens. For example, this university gives you 57 links on the homepage, not organised into any coherent groups. This world famous university has 62, though admittedly the links are clustered in a somewhat more logical way. The one that gets it absolutely right is the University of Warwick, with only nine links on the homepage.

Secondly, almost no university seems to be able to resist the idea that it should publish self-congratulatory news stories on the homepage. Of course this is simply a form of PR, but not a useful one. It is not an effective way of publishing press releases (journalists don’t scour university websites looking for these), while those who go to a university website will almost always find them a distraction. They serve absolutely no purpose, except in very rare cases of stories that people may genuinely want to have brought to their attention.

Thirdly, most of the websites were very hard to navigate. I asked a friend to look at each of them and try to get as much information as possible about undergraduate examinations, including exam dates, initially without using the ‘search’ function. In the case of three of them he was unable to get any information at all by following links. Interestingly, in one of these even the search function didn’t help, while in the other two it brought so many results that it took him ages to work out which of them was of use to him. Seven of the 14 universities seemed to publish no information about examination dates (or if they did he couldn’t find it). In the case of only one university did the hunt for exam information turn out to be easy and logical.

Finally, the design of most websites goes against the most obvious principle: keep it simple. Don’t cover the page with writing and images, and don’t make the following of links too complex. On the homepage, keep individual items apart from each other with plenty of white space, and only include information that will clearly be helpful to those accessing the page. Of the 14 websites I looked at, five even put so much on the page that it forces the user to scroll down to find key information, an absolute no-no in the design of internet home pages.

It seems to me that all this is another sign that many universities don’t have a proper understanding of the key objectives of PR, and in particular that they don’t really appreciate the potential and pitfalls of websites. Mostly they have not properly considered what they want these sites to do for them, and therefore they don’t knowhow they should design them to achieve their purposes. Universities deal with very complex areas of knowledge, but when it comes to the internet they should, above all, keep it simple.

Regulating speech on the internet?

August 4, 2010

When I was a law student in the mid-1970s, libel was a straightforward enough concept. Well actually, it was of course fairly complex, but nevertheless it was clear that the purpose of the law was to give a remedy to anyone who had been the subject of untruthful and damaging comment that had been published to third parties. What made it an effective cause of action for anyone damaged in this way was that the publication was always likely to involve a major corporate publisher whose pockets would be deep enough should a case be won: typically a book publisher or  newspaper.

The problem with libel laws however was that someone with a lot of resources could sufficiently frighten a publisher by holding out the prospect of years of expensive litigation with an uncertain outcome. Faced with the prospect of this, newspapers and publishers were often tempted to take the easier and less expensive route of not publishing whatever the potential plaintiff objected to, even where the proposed publication was true and the putative plaintiff’s case had little merit.

Then came the internet, and everything changed. Nowadays everyone with a computer and an internet connection can publish anything they like at the click of a mouse. It is extremely easy and cheap. No major publisher or newspaper is needed for this. The crankiest and craziest of individuals with the most absurd chip on their shoulder can instantly take their case into the public domain. And if anyone is wronged, they may then be forced to take off on a wild goose chase as they try to find out where in the world, and under what defamation laws if any, the thing was actually published. They may also find that the person or organisation owning the server or hardware which facilitated the publication has protected themselves effectively (or at any rate may appear to have done so) from any liability for what the author has said. And they may find that the perhaps anonymous author cannot be traced at all.

So now, as night follows day, there will be increasingly aggressive attempts to find ways of creating effective legal liability that will allow people who have been damaged online to find redress. Equally, there will be energetic campaigns to protect the freedom of the internet and its status as a location where regulation is minimal or non-existent and where people can say things that are unsayable anywhere else. Close legal regulation of the internet is something that is seen by many as the end of the web as an interesting source of information and a place of free interaction, not least because some authorities may have more sinister things in mind than just giving redress to the unfairly wronged.

I confess I find it difficult to imagine that the idea of the unregulated internet can survive, as there are many powerful people and organisations who will want to bring order into all this. And in truth it is hard to argue that someone should be allowed to use the web to destroy another’s reputation with false assertions, rumours and lies. And yet… free speech is the right that perhaps most particularly protects democracy and freedom, and the opportunity for people to bypass powerful publishing interests and make information available without excessive risk is at the heart of that. In addition, many people write fairly casually on the internet – as for example on Twitter – and don’t expect what they write innocently to become subject-matter for detailed legal interpretation.  And others may want to write reviews of good or services without fear of legal reprisal, or make a case freely where they feel they have been wronged.

I shall be interested to see whether some form of regulation can be found that does not compromise legitimate attempts to publish views and information. But if as I suspect such a framework is unavailable, I remain on the side of free speech. I guess.

A depressing obsession?

August 3, 2010

Well, I guess you may have reached this blog after a long surf on the internet. You may have browsed news sites, sports reports, shopping pages, style advice, and goodness knows what, and now some link has brought you here. Well, welcome. But if you are now feeling a tad depressed, it may not be the quality and content of this blog, after all. In fact, according to some research carried out by an Australian team in China, obsessive surfing of the internet is linked with depression.

What makes them conclude this? Well, these guys studied 1,000 high school students in southern China, and found that those who said they were addicted to the internet were also 2.5 times more likely to be depressed. According to Time magazine, this is what the researchers concluded:

‘The results indicate that people who use the Internet pathologically are most at risk of mental problems and would develop depression when they continue with that behavior.’

Of course I haven’t seen the detailed analysis, but on the basis of the report I would find the conclusion to be dubious. First, the greater risk of depression was associated with those who self-reported an internet ‘addiction’, and for me this raises all sorts of issues about the state of mind of those declaring in this way. Secondly, the researchers suggest that excessive internet use may cause depression, but it seems to me that their research establishes no such thing: it could just as easily indicate that a depressed person may seek relief by browsing the web. I cannot see that anything causal has been established.

I am sure that the internet can be and sometimes is misused, and I can equally imagine that excessive web browsing is not a good idea. Furthermore, as the internet has become part of the fabric of daily life it is right to ask questions abut its use. But in such cases we need to take care not to jump to facile conclusions, and then not to take steps to limit internet use based on such conclusions.

Losing our attention span?

July 4, 2010

I think we’ve been here before. When I was 10 years old a professor of something or other (I think it was sociology) from England visited my school, and he had a very stark warning for us young students. We were likely to be the last generation, he said, that could face the rigour of tackling an argument or understanding a treatise. And why? Because of television advertising on ITV (and I guess, Telefis Eireann, as it then was). As these pesky commercials interrupted everything every 15 minutes, our brains would adapt and would be unable to focus on anything for longer than that. For good measure, he also pointed to the growing popularity of tabloid newspapers, and their tendency to wrap up every story, no matter how complicated, in three paragraphs. At least I think that’s what he said. It took him longer than 15 minutes, and my mind may have drifted; or maybe I was just thinking, what a load of codswallop.

Anyway, the professor’s intellectual heirs have continued banging this drum (as no doubt his intellectual ancestors did, from the first moment that the printing press distributed leaflets with bite-size arguments). The most recent drum banger is Professor Gary Small of UCLA (Los Angeles), who is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as warning us about the internet, and all the Twitter and Facebook stuff. It is developing ‘new neural pathways’, he says, and we should be very afraid:

‘Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it.’

All my life I have listened to people telling me that modern technology, communications or media are leaving us unable to handle big themes and arguments and are making us skim along the surface of knowledge without really taking anything in. I’m never sure what I am supposed to conclude from this – am I supposed to take a sledgehammer and destroy all that annoying computer hardware, televisions and so forth? Or am I just supposed to expand my complaints inventory and join the ‘Oh-aren’t-we-all-getting-so-thick’ brigade?

I don’t actually care about the new neural pathways, I see absolutely no evidence of a new more stupid generation. Nor do I believe that the availability of much more information, and of hyperlinks to pursue it, has killed good analysis. If there is evidence of anything at all here, it is the fear of the unknown, and of the impact of technology as it changes our lives. Right now the Amazon Kindle, and the iPad, and other devices (another post on this coming up) have helped to grow the number of readers of serious books, and news sites on the internet, including those undertaking serious analysis, are thriving. I believe that there is a natural instinct in humans to look for explanations, and the availability of information to pursue this is developing rather than hindering analytical skills. I am not of course saying that everyone does this well and that information is never misunderstood or abused – but that’s not a new problem.

So for heaven’s sake let us stop worrying about new ways of finding and disseminating information. Let us just harness it.

Switching off the internet?

June 23, 2010

Here’s an idea from left field. US Senator Joe Lieberman, one time Vice-Presidential candidate for the Democrats (on the Al Gore ticket) and now an independent senator, is apparently introducing legislation that would allow the US President, in the event of an ‘imminent cyber threat’, to ‘take over our civilian networks’. This has been interpreted by commentators as a proposal to allow the US President to ‘switch off’ the internet.

The Senator seems to be slightly unsure (based on interviews he has given) whether he does mean this or whether he means something else, but it throws into relief again the question as to whether, how and for what purpose the internet should be regulated or constrained. There is a strong global culture now that sees the internet as ‘no man’s land’ and that does not accept that there should be any legal or governmental restrictions on it. Sooner or later there will need to be a formal international consensus on this, not least because governments in many parts of the world see the internet as a threat and may be tempted to censor or restrict it (as some do).

It’s not as if all reasonable people would always insist on a totally unfettered internet. I would know few, for example, who would argue that online child pornography should just be tolerated. So if there are to be restrictions at all, we need to be clear about what should drive these, and how far they should be tolerated, and how the overall free and democratic nature of the net can be preserved. It is time for these matters to be addressed explicitly.

Is the internet destroying or enriching education?

March 26, 2010

I was wandering around the room at a reception the other day; you know, one of those receptions where, once you get there, you really can’t remember why you accepted the invitation. Still, networking is everything, and so I sidled up to the first little cluster of people standing around with wine glasses. One of them turned out to be an educator, and he recognised me and rounded on me. ‘One of my students brought me this essay’, he said, ‘and he used your blog as a source for his argument.’ Good man, I thought; but I didn’t say it, because the face of my interlocutor betrayed clearly that he was anything but pleased. He continued: ‘I had to explain to him, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, that your blog is not a primary source.’ OK, I thought, I’ll have to bite now. ‘Primary source for what?’ I asked. ‘He was doing an assignment on higher education values.’ He paused, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the way the internet is misused. And it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t there.’

OK, I had to find another cluster of wine drinkers to bother, because if that conversation had continued I might have had to hit the man. Of course to be fair, he was right when he said that the internet could not be misused if it wasn’t there. But everything else was nonsense; well actually, that was nonsense, too, but at least it was logically correct, if stupid.

Of course we all know about the capacity of the internet to supply ready material for those tempted by plagiarism, and we know that not everything that makes it online is necessarily correct. But those who make that latter point often imply that in the past, once it was put on paper by a hot metal process every statement was infallible; in truth an awful lot of nonsense also got printed. And in any case, there were all sorts of hyperventilating people who in the 16th century were arguing that unless a monk had sat in a cellar etching something on to pigskin a written text had no scholarly value.

But now there is a whole industry of people shouting about the corruption of knowledge wrought by the internet. One of these is the writer Nicholas Carr, who became famous for criticising student habits with the phrase ‘Facebook is the dorm; Wikipedia is the library; and Craigslist is the mall.’ By the way, he issued that dictum on his blog, where else? Elsewhere he has argued that the internet is killing off ‘concentration and contemplation.’

I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy. Underlying this assertion is the view that knowledge cannot be shared, it needs to be mediated, and this needs to be done by a special priesthood of experts who will be there to tell you what is right and what is wrong. But actually, knowledge reaches its true value when it is provided democratically, openly and freely. Of course knowledge needs to be accompanied by understanding, and this needs to be secured by learning (and teaching), but we need to have much more confidence that in the end knowledge enlightens, educates and transforms. Why else are we in education?