Notable debates in the House of Lords

We’re quite fond of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. As the first web designer, he personally converted the Internet from an odd curiosity of network engineering into a generally useful vehicle for social intercourse, changing the world. That this was a contribution of inestimable value goes without saying. It’s therefore distressing to read that he’s been mumbling nonsense in public fora about Internet management practices.

For all his brilliance, Sir Tim has never really been on top of the whole traffic thing. His invention, HTTP 1.0, did strange things to the Internet’s traffic handling system: his decision to chunk segments into 512 byte pieces tripled the number of packets the Internet had to carry per unit of information transfer, and his decision to open a unique TCP stream for every object (section of text or graphic image) on a web page required each part of each page to load in TCP’s “slow start” mode. Carriers massively expanded the capacity of their pipes in a vain attempt to speed up web pages, as poor performance was designed into Sir Tim’s protocol. Hence the term “world-wide wait” had to be coined to describe the system, and more experienced engineers had to produce HTTP 1.1 to eliminate the tortured delay. This is not to bash His Eminence, but rather to point out that all of us, even the geniuses, have limited knowledge.

At a House of Lords roundtable last week, Sir Tim took up a new cause by way of complaining about one of the ways that personal information may be obtained on the Internet:

Speaking at a House of Lords event on the 20th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee said that deep packet inspection was the electronic equivalent of opening people’s mail.

“This is very important to me, as what is at stake is the integrity of the internet as a communications medium,” Berners-Lee said on Wednesday. “Clearly we must not interfere with the internet, and we must not snoop on the internet. If we snoop on clicks and data, we can find out a lot more information about people than if we listen to their conversations.”

Deep packet inspection involves examining both the data and the header of an information packet as it passes a ‘black box’ on a network, in order to reveal the content of the communication.

Like many opponents of the scary-sounding “deep packet inspection,” His Eminence confuses means and ends. There are many ways to obtain personal information on the Internet; the preceding post was about one of them. Given the choice, most of us would gladly surrender some level of information in order to obtain free services or simply better-targeted ads. As long as the Internet is considered a bastion of “free-” (actually, “advertising-supported-“) culture and information, personal information gathering will be the coin of the realm. So it doesn’t much matter if my privacy is violated by a silly packet-snooping system that I can easily thwart by encrypting my data or by an overly-invasive ad placement system, it’s gone either way. So if he’s manic about privacy, he should address the practice of information-gathering itself and not simply one means of doing it.

Nonsense is not unknown in the House of Lords, however. One of the most entertaining debates in the history of Western democracy took place in that august body, the infamous UFO debate:

The big day came on 18 January 1979 in the middle of a national rail strike. But the industrial crisis did nothing to dampen interest in UFOs. The debate was one of the best attended ever held in the Lords, with sixty peers and hundreds of onlookers – including several famous UFOlogists – packing the public gallery.

Lord Clancarty opened the three hour session at 7pm “to call attention to the increasing number of sightings and landings on a world wide scale of UFOs, and to the need for an intra-governmental study of UFOs.” He wound up his speech by asking the Government reveal publicly what they knew about the phenomenon. And he appealed to the Labour Minister of Defence, Fred Mulley, to give a TV broadcast on the issue in the same way his French counterpart, M. Robert Galley, had done in 1974.

The pro-UFO lobby was supported eloquently by the Earl of Kimberley, a former Liberal spokesman on aerospace, who drew upon a briefing by the Aetherius Society for his UFO facts (see obituary, FT 199:24). Kimberley’s views were evident from an intervention he made when a Tory peer referred to the Jodrell Bank radio telescope’s failure to detect a single UFO: “Does the noble Lord not think it conceivable that Jodrell Bank says there are no UFOs because that is what it has been told to say?”

More than a dozen peers, including two eminent retired scientists, made contributions to the debate. Several reported their own sightings including Lord Gainford who gave a good description of the Cosmos rocket, “a bright white ball” like a comet flying low over the Scottish hills on New Year’s Eve. Others referred to the link between belief in UFOs and religious cults. In his contribution the Bishop of Norwich said he was concerned the UFO mystery “is in danger of producing a 20th century superstition” that sought to undermine the Christian faith.

Perhaps their Lordships will invite His Eminence to observe an actual debate on Internet privacy, now that he’s set the stage with the roundtable. I think it would be absolutely smashing to see 40 of Bertie Wooster’s elderly uncles re-design the Web. Maybe they can add a comprehensive security model to the darned thing.

On a related note, Robb Topolski presented the worthies with a vision of the Web in a parallel universe that sent many scurrying back to their country estates to look after their hedgehogs. Topolski actually spoke about North American gophers, but the general discussion brings to mind the hedgehog’s dilemma of an open, advertising-supported Internet: a system that depends on making the private public is easily exploited.

UPDATE: Incidentally, Topolski’s revisionist history of the Web has been harshly slapped-down by the Boing-Boing readers who should be a friendly audience:

Huh? What a bizarre claim. Is he saying that network admins weren’t capable of blocking port 80 when HTTP was getting off its feet?!?

Wha? Even ignoring the fact that network admins at the time _did_ have the tools to block/filter this kind of traffic, this would still have little or nothing to do with endpoint computing power.

Oh, man. This is defintely junk.

Revisionist history in the name of greater freedom is still a lie.

Follow this link to a discussion from 1993 about how to make a Cisco firewall block or permit access to various Internet services by port. HTTP isn’t in the example, but the same rules apply. The power was clearly there.

Welcome to the NAF, Robb, do your homework next time.

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