Friday, June 10, 2016

Action items after attending the Decentralized Web Summit

I attended the first six hours of the Decentralized Web Summit  on Wednesday (I had to leave early to attend a family event). Great talks and panel sessions and it was nice to say hello to Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, and Cory Doctorow. I would like to thank all of the people I talked with during breaks, breakfast, and lunch: good conversations and shared ideas. The basic theme was what can we as technologists do to "lock open the web" to prevent governments and corporations from removing privacy and freedoms in the future.

There was a lot of discusion why the GPL is a powerful tool for maintaining freedom. The call to action for the summit was (quoting from the web site) "The current Web is not private or censorship-free. It lacks a memory, a way to preserve our culture’s digital record through time. The Decentralized Web aims to make the Web open, secure and free of censorship by distributing data, processing, and hosting across millions of computers around the world, with no centralized control."

I have been thinking about my own use of the Internet and the trade-offs that I sometimes make in order to have an easier and more polished web experience and things that I will try to do differently. My personal list of action items, which I am already starting is:

  1. Separate my working use of computers from my mobile experience: on my Linux laptop, setting maximal privacy settings on IceCat (privacy tuned Firefox) and avoiding social media use (Twitter, Facebook, and Google+). I also use Fastmail for most email that does not involve travel arrangements.
  2. For convenience travelling, I allow myself on my Android phone to use Google Inbox for email related to travel arrangements, Google Now alerts (travel reminders, etc.) and generally use social media. I have been merging all of my email together but I have now started to keep GMail distinctly separate from my personal email account on Fastmail.
  3. Re-evaluating the use of Cloud Services. I am experimenting with using GNU Note (GNote) for note taking on my Linux laptop. I am continuing my practice of encrypting backups (saved as date-versioned ZIP files) before transferring to OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive. I have been using three Cloud storage services to effectively have three backup locations.

Modern smartphones are not privacy friendly devices and I decided to just live with some compromises. On the other hand, on my Linux laptop used for writing and consulting work, I am attempting to take all reasonable steps to maintain privacy and security.

Tim Berners-Lee mentioned the W3C Solid design and reference implementations for decentralized identity, authorization, and access control. The basic idea is to have common decentralized data for a user that is secure and private, and can be used by multiple clients by each user, using their secure data.

In the past, I have tried running my own instance of Apache (used to be Google) Wave and asking family and friends to use it as our personal social media. To be honest, people I know mostly didn't want to use it. Since I view my smartphone as already "damaged goods" as far as privacy goes, I will continue using it to check social media like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. I have been trying to use GNU Social more often (my feed is https://quitter.no/markwatson). I do use GNU Social on my Linux laptop.

Last week a friend of mine asked me why I care about privacy and protecting the web against corporate and governmental over reach. That is not an easy question to answer with a simple short answer. Certainly, laws like Digital Millennium Copyright Act have a chilling effect of making it legally dangerous for security experts to evaluate the safety of electronic devices like medical treatment, etc. Studies have shown that the lack of privacy has a chilling effect on using the rights of free speech. In addition to my own practices, as an individual one of the best things that I do to help is in making donations to the FSF, EFF, ACLU, Mozilla, and archive.org.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

As AI systems make more decisions, we need Libre Software now more than ever

I have been using AI technology on projects since the 1980's (first using mostly symbolic AI, then neural networks and machine learning) and in addition to the exponentially growing progress the other thing that strikes me is how a once small AI developers community has grown by perhaps almost three orders of magnitude in the number of people working in the field. As the new conventional wisdom goes AI services will be like cloud computing services and power: ubiquitous.

As AI systems decide what medical care people get, who gets mortgages and at what interest rates, the ranking of employees in large organizations, nation states automatically determining who is a threat to their power base or public safety, control of driverless cars, maintain detailed information on everyone and drive their purchasing decisions, etc., having some transparency in algorithms and software implementation is crucial.

Notice how I put "Libre Software" in the title, not "Open Source." While business friendly permissive licenses like Apache 2 and MIT are appropriate for many types of projects, Libre Software licenses like the GPL3 and AGPL3 will ensure that the public commons of AI algorithms and software implementation stays open and transparent.

What about corporations maintaining their proprietary intellectual property for AI? I am sensitive to this issue but I still argue that the combination of a commons of Libre open source AI software with proprietary server infrastructure and proprietary data sources should be sufficient to protect corporations' investments and competitive advantages.