Feeds

'Don't break the internet': How an idiot's slogan stole your privacy...

... and how to get it back

New hybrid storage solutions

Public libraries, ownership and document permissions

shutterstock_privacy_sml

The demand that government regulators not "break the internet" has
become a powerful propaganda tool to avoid property rights being
attached to digital objects. Image via Shutterstock

Six years ago, the newspaper industry began to develop a protocol that would allocate permissions to documents. The idea wasn't to block content, or wrap it in DRM, but to allow machines to read who owned a document. The protocol was the Automated Content Access Protocol, or ACAP. We described it here as "a system that governs how machines, not humans, handle content", similar to the way that Creative Commons is a machine-readable system of permissions.

It's important to stress that ownership and permissions allow social contracts, and institutions to be built on top of them. The GPL is an example of just such an institution. Libraries, it's worth remembering, are another.

In the library system, the ownership of the work doesn't change. The remarkable 1850 Libraries Act didn't mention copyright – and didn't change it at all – it merely gave local authorities the power to raise taxes to create public reading rooms. It didn't enact a compulsory purchase order on author's rights; it wasn't necessary. Libraries and the GPL are both possible because of strong property rights.

According to Young, ACAP initially won a positive reception from Google, because it was "seen as a way of solving a sticky problem without having to legislate – and avoided lots of awkward issues like DRM." ACAP was the kind of thing politicians like; it saves them from passing more laws.

Google then got on board and assigned a techie to help develop the syntax. HTML tags were the natural choice, but Google insisted otherwise.

Mark Bide, a veteran consultant who advises publishers on metadata and other technical issues, takes up the story.

"The Google engineer wanted to use an old 1990s format, Robots.txt, the Robots Exclusion Standard. He said if we didn't work in this old format, no one would be able to comply with it," Bide told me. "So rather against our instincts - because it's an awkward syntax - we said we'll work in that format." Duly, version 1 of ACAP was published.

Then the team began to hear something odd: Google was briefing Whitehall. Google began to tell people terrible things would happen if permissions were attached to documents.

"It came from government officials, who told us that while they liked the idea of ACAP they had been told that it would 'Break the Internet'," Young remembers.

Bide recalls this message percolating down from civil servants: ACAP wasn't allowed to arrange a three-way discussion to rebut Google's whispering campaign.

"None of them wanted to go down in history as the person who unwittingly 'Broke the Internet', and none of them were geeky enough to ask even the simplest questions to explore the substance of this ludicrous claim, or willing to facilitate a conversation which might lead to an answer," recalls Young.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt then raised a technical reason.

"At present it does not fit with the way our systems operate," he said in 2008. Which is interesting, because it was Google that had insisted on ACAP being in robots.txt.

There are several possible reasons for Google's briefings. Bide suspects that with Google's ongoing skirmishes with newspaper publishers, it feared any co-operation on ACAP might be construed as an admission of liability.

"To accept that people could tell you not to do it was to accept that doing it without permission was not entirely legitimate."

If that's true, short-term arguments won out over long-term benefits of market building. If Google designed the protocol that created a global content marketplace for newspapers and magazines, it would be in the platform position it so craves. It may yet be, as the ACAP work continues; it's not going away.

But the exhortation not to "break the internet" has become a rallying cry and a powerful propaganda tool to avoid property rights being attached to digital objects. It seems that any attempt to create ownership is catastrophic, at least in some people's minds.

Lawrence Lessig, for example, has used the phrase many times over the years – have a look here on Terry Hart's Copyblog for a great collection of "Breaking the Internet" moments. (See also here).

Bide also notes how the phrase "breaking the internet" is quite artfully constructed. It's beautifully ambiguous. To us techies, who know how robust it is, breakage is a cataclysmic event – it implies something on the scale of a complete power out. But the phrase can be whispered to a non-techie with the meaning that the "the internet will change". The non-techie doesn't really know how robust the internet is, in reality, and so the warning becomes apocalyptic. Because Google managed to maintain a monopoly on policy-makers' ears, it was able to carry off the deception. But that's by the by – let's see what this means for privacy.

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
Driving with an Apple Watch could land you with a £100 FINE
Bad news for tech-addicted fanbois behind the wheel
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Sony says year's losses will be FOUR TIMES DEEPER than thought
Losses of more than $2 BILLION loom over troubled Japanese corp
Radio hams can encrypt, in emergencies, says Ofcom
Consultation promises new spectrum and hints at relaxed licence conditions
Why Oracle CEO Larry Ellison had to go ... Except he hasn't
Silicon Valley's veteran seadog in piratical Putin impression
Big Content Australia just blew a big hole in its credibility
AHEDA's research on average content prices did not expose methodology, so appears less than rigourous
Bono: Apple will sort out monetising music where the labels failed
Remastered so hard it would be difficult or impossible to master it again
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
The next step in data security
With recent increased privacy concerns and computers becoming more powerful, the chance of hackers being able to crack smaller-sized RSA keys increases.