What Century is Lord Justice Leveson Living In?

On a day when world politics was rocked by the news that the Syrian government shut down the country's Internet in an ostensible attempt to stymie opposition groups, an English judge issued the much-anticipated findings of his eight-month inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. The nearly 2,000-page report (a 48-page executive summary is available), spawned by an eight-year and increasingly explosive phone-hacking scandal by News International newspaper journalists, is a sprawling deep dive into the UK media landscape, press ethics and values in addition to a detailed analysis of the complex scandal itself.

The massive condensation of materials examined, interviews conducted and hearings held is a prosecuting jurist's dream and a media analyst's delight, featuring facts, analysis, history and wonderfully colorful condemnation of some of Britain's most powerful figures and institutions, primarily Rupert Murdoch's News International., which has dominated British press and politics for well over a quarter of a century.  I'll leave it to others to accurately and adequately summarize the Proustian report, except to say that Lord Justice Leveson, the judge who led the inquiry, concluded his work by recommending an intricate system of British press self-regulation back-stopped by legislation and public officials to "guard the guardians."

This prospect of further intrusion by the British government into the workings of the press is only now being digested by the press and politicians, although Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron immediately and summarily dismissed the report's call for statutory oversight of the press.  And by "press," Leveson does indeed mean only the traditional press, the kind that uses paper and ink.  

Any notion of regulating Internet-based journalism or publishing was roundly rejected by Leveson because, well, the Internet is not the press, in his eyes, because it is unregulated, does not operate according to ethical standards and in any event, web-based content such as blogs or tweets are barely ready by anyone and "rarely read as news or factual."  

Yes, that's what he said.

What follows are selected sections from the report where, in essence, Leveson says, unlike the Syrian government, that the Internet does not matter.  

Regarding blogs (and here Leveson even cites newspaper blogs, such as those maintained by the Guardian newspaper):
These vastly different sites are all offered to the public in the same way; they all have the same theoretical reach to the entire internet-connected population at the touch of a button (particularly when facilitated by search engines). They are also, with the regulatory exceptions set out above, entirely unregulated, though subject to civil and criminal law in appropriate jurisdictions. However, it is noteworthy that although the blogs cited here are read by very large numbers of people, it should not detract from the fact that most blogs are read by very few people. Indeed, most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such. [emphasis added]
How Twitter is not really that important a new source because so few tweets are read:
However, it is worthy of note that despite their extraordinary growth, as with most blogs, in the main few tweets or social network pages are read by very large numbers of people.
The Internet does not operate by ethical standards:
...the internet  does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say  for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross  mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and  fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that  bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.
Because it does not operate according to ethical standards, the Internet is not really the press:
The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of  conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more  heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed  to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever  medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.  Although in the light of the events leading to the setting up of this Inquiry and the evidence  I have heard, the public is entitled to be sceptical about the true quality of parts of that  product in certain sections of the press, the premise on which newspapers operate remains  constant: that the Code will be adhered to, that within the bounds of natural human error  printed facts whether in newsprint or online will be accurate, and that individual rights will  be respected. In contrast, the internet does not function on this basis at all. People will not  assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular  assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view. There is none of the notional imprimatur or kitemark which comes from being the publisher of a respected  broadsheet or, in its different style, an equally respected mass circulation tabloid.
So, in the end, Leveson is recommending government regulation (through the formation of a statutorily backed independent self-regulatory body) of only print products and, vaguely, for web-based news produced by traditional print media.  And the only entities subject to that regulation would be UK-based press outlets.

At first blush, while Leveson may have noble intentions to elevate the British press to a more sacred purveyor of only ethical news that serves the public interest, his garbled grasp of how the Internet works might only serve to weaken the very institution he seeks to strengthen.  By burdening the already beleaguered print media with the prospect of a new regulatory body, given the force of law by the government (the prospective weakening of the "free" press that would occur from this move will likely and should receive more analysis), Leveson's recommendations, if carried out, could be yet another nail in the old media's coffin, at least in the UK.

Here Comes the Cybersecurity Executive Order with Its Insane Deadlines

In a move engineered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate shot down two days ago the prospect of comprehensive cybersecurity legislation during the lame duck Congress, ratcheting up the prospects that President Obama will make good on his threats to sign an executive order that achieves what Congress has so far failed to accomplish.  Proponents for a cybersecurity bill lost 51 to 47 and some of the smarter (and perhaps more cynical)  thinkers on the cybersecurity tussle believe that the fast post-election effort to give Congress another run at the goal line was nothing more than a hail Mary maneuver to give Obama political cover to issue the order.

Whatever the case may be, all signs point to Obama issuing that order any day now.  Amid all the political wrangling, little attention has been paid to the actual substance of the order itself.  Although little more than a dozen pages long, the order is a vast, gnarly beast that will put into motion massive activity throughout the federal government, involving virtually every agency, administrative office, military branch and, of course, hundreds of thousands of businesses, non-profit organizations, public agencies and state and local governments.

Not only is the scope of the order vast, but also the deadlines specified in the latest version of the "public" draft order are insanely ambitious for such a complex undertaking.  I've mapped out the key deadlines in the table below.

Assuming that Obama signs the order before Thanksgiving (as is widely believed), and assuming the final order resembles the current draft, the complex apparatus needed to fulfill the order's directives must swing into gear to accomplish a host of intricate things in extremely short time frames.  For example,
  • via a consultative process throughout the federal government (and relying on an existing and controversial database involving hundreds of thousands of entities), the Department of Homeland Security has to identify all critical infrastructure assets covered under the order by mid-April.  
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology has to develop a framework for identifying and managing cyber risks across a host of diverse critical infrastructure sectors by mid-May.  
  • Also by mid-May DHS has to implement guidance on how critical infrastructure owners can voluntarily share cybersecurity information, 
  • and on and on.
Each of the deadlined tasks spelled out in the order will require fast, nimble and extraordinarily skilled bureaucratic scrambling throughout the government and heretofore unseen policy, technical and administrative process expertise by the critical infrastructure owners.  Then there's the matter of the all-important privacy-related items, which appear to have no deadline affixed to them, as of the latest public draft.

Quite a few people, it seems, will be toiling away during the holiday season..and for years afterward.


It’s the Back-Up Power, Stupid: Communications, Electricity and Service Restoration Following Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, like Hurricane Katrina before it, highlights a little-examined but perennial riddle:  what comes first in restoring life to normal after a major crisis, electricity or communications?  Without electricity, there can be no form of electronic communications but without the ability to communicate, power providers are ill-equipped to restore electricity in anything but a haphazard manner.

In the wake of Sandy’s damage, both critical infrastructure providers, telecommunications and electricity, were hard hit with outages due to downed lines and damaged, flooded hardware.  But as the days wore on, a crucial distinction emerged between the two providers:  with no electricity and back-up fuel in extremely short supply, communications providers simply had no power to operate their networks, particularly their wireless networks.  Last Friday, the FCC commented on the situation, acknowledging that “replenishing fuel supplies for generators that are enabling communications networks to continue operating is a particularly critical challenge.”

This assessment echoes the conclusions of an FCC panel asked to address how well communications networks fared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  That panel found that among the chief causes of communications failure after Katrina were faulty batteries used by the telcos combined with lack of power given that utilities had been knocked out too.  The panel also found that communications networks owned and operated by utilities fared fairly well because they were designed to remain intact to aid restoration of service following a significant event. 

The importance of maintaining robust communications in a crisis situation is one of the top reasons why utilities tenaciously argue they need to maintain their own communications networks, such as private land mobile radio communications and fiber and microwave-based systems that allow system-wide communications, independent of and apart from the so-called “public carrier” networks.   Since the dawn of both industries, which occurred at roughly the same time period -- Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were both pushing wires to homes and businesses simultaneously -- utilities have been fighting with telecom providers to maintain their own communications networks while telecom providers have been arguing that this duplication of infrastructure is a waste of society’s resources and ignores the highly specialized and valuable expertise that telecom companies bring to the table. 

And both industries are correct.  Utilities are rarely on the cutting-edge of technology innovation, a handicap that is becoming clear, for example, in the cybersecurity arena, where communications providers must develop razor sharp protection schemes or else lose out to smarter, more technologically savvy rivals, while utilities have no economic incentive – and indeed are often discouraged by regulators – to spend more money or time on maintaining digital security.  And yet, when it comes to crisis situations, it all comes down to back-up power.

To keep their communications networks running, most utilities use interim battery and long-term generator back-up which is usually indefinite – practically unlimited storage of diesel, gas or other fuel sources is one of the perks of being a power company.   No other industry, including telecom providers, can keep back-up power going for more than a day or two.  A study I conducted in 2010 found that one of the top reasons utilities are reluctant to rely on communications providers is "insufficient levels of power back-up."  Another top reason that utilities are reluctant to rely on phone company networks for their mission critical functions, according to the study’s findings, are "concerns over disaster preparedness" on the part of telecom providers.

While telecom companies have made great strides since Katrina in ensuring better power back-up during crisis situations, Hurricane Sandy answers, for now, the riddle of what comes first in restoring life to normal, electricity or communications.  The answer, of course, is that they both come first.

(With full disclosure, I spent three-and-a-half years studying what most people, prior to the advent of the “smart grid,” used to consider the arcane niche of “utility communications” on behalf of the utility industry.  But I also spent years many more years before that conducting analyses on behalf of a host of traditional communications providers so I’d like to think I’m coming at this fully informed by the cultures and arguments of both industries.)

Image source:  Power outage screen capture from Google Maps.

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